IN THE CROSSFIRE
Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary
IN THE MEKONG DELTA
On the little train from Saigon to My Tho, my fellow passengers (barefoot peasants for the most part), whether out of tact or indifference, appeared not to notice the handcuffed prisoner with his police escort. After almost a month of confinement in the Sûreté at Phnom Penh and with an unknown jail sentence ahead of me, it was a sheer joy to watch the repetitive landscape roll by, the sparkling expanse of ricefields, the herds of peaceful buffalos, the straw huts sheltered by clumps of bamboo. But why was I being transferred to My Tho?
As soon as we arrived, I was taken to the office of the examining magistrate, a native of India with a bloated, peevish face.
“Ah, a Trotskyite! You gang of saboteurs!
It was strange that he was using this Moscow Trials–style terminology to attack me. He took a letter from a file and asked me to confirm that I was its author. I recognized it: it was a letter I had written to Canh, a friend who worked at the tax office in My Tho. He had asked my advice about which of Trotsky’s books he should read. The letter was written in Vietnamese, but the titles The Permanent Revolution and The Communist International After Lenin were in French. Canh had forgotten the letter in between the pages of a tax ledger. His French boss had found it and taken it straight to the Sûreté. I learned in this way that Canh had been arrested.
“You are charged with subversive activities, the judge informed me.
The guard took me to the prison in the center of My Tho, where I was put in the holding cell with others under investigation or awaiting sentence. We were packed together like trussed poultry. Amid the suffocating stink of urine and the stench of the latrines, the prisoners were all sitting or lying on boards that oozed filth. My bare feet recoiled from walking on the slimy floor. One of the prisoners was relieving himself on an elevated platform at the back of the room; squatting over the hole, he tried to hide his nakedness with the plank of wood that served as a lid for the latrine.
Seven or eight peasants came up to me as I entered, welcoming me as though they had been expecting my arrival. Perhaps, like me, they had been seized after the declaration of war.
We were penned up in the cell all the time. Twice a day — in the morning around 11:00 and in the afternoon around 4:00 — the single iron door would open and the herd would surge into the narrow courtyard and fall on the food, crouching and eating it off the ground where it had been left. Then we would be quickly herded back inside under the watchful eye of the screws. Apart from that, we had no access to the yard nor a single breath of fresh air.
During these feeding times we could see the female prisoners, crouched on the threshold of their cell. Among them I saw my partner’s elder sister, Chi Nam Thin, who had been sentenced to three years. The only woman “political in this jail, she had joined the ICP in the heroic days of 1930.
They soon separated us from the nonpolitical prisoners. The Thanh Loi peasants and I found ourselves confined in a cell no bigger than a corridor with my unfortunate correspondent, Canh, and with four religious cultists who were charged with political crimes just like we were.
Apart from the two brief periods when we were let out for food, we had no space for walking, so we remained sitting or lying on the planks in the cell. Outside, just underneath the barred window facing the yard, was a water jar. To get water out of it, acrobatics were needed. We had to perch on the windowsill, two meters off the ground, lower an empty can on a string through the bars, and fill it from the jar, so that we could drink and occasionally have a perfunctory wash.
Canh and I went to trial in November. Since we had no lawyer, we conducted our own defense. The dossier probably contained no more than the letter to Canh and my past Sûreté records. I stated that since leaving prison in 1937 and going to work in Phnom Penh, I had abstained from any political activity, and that my only subversive action had been to communicate to a friend the titles of two works by Trotsky.
“But in Saigon you were seen greeting Ta Thu Thau in the street, retorted the Presiding Judge.
“I knew Ta Thu Thau in prison, so naturally I greet him when I see him.
The verdict: six months’ prison for Canh and eight for me. We decided not to appeal.
The Criminal Court convened the same day in the same place. At dusk, I heard heart-rending cries: as men were led off in chains back to the prison, their wives followed them, shrieking and sobbing, children in their arms. These men, condemned to forced labor, would be held in the gloomy cells next to our room, waiting to be transported to Poulo Condore. That same evening, as night fell, the vile magistrate arrived in the prison. This descendant of a slave, until recently colonized in the same way as his current victims, but now elevated to the dignity of a French citizen (because he was born in the Antilles), seemed proud of his lackey’s role as he inspected the men he was sending off to the slow death of the penal colony.
In an isolated cell there was an escapee from Poulo Condore who was kept in irons day and night. His head was half shaved, from the middle of his forehead to the back of his neck, and the screws maliciously nicknamed him the rooster.
I fraternized with the youngest of the religious cultists, and gradually also established a certain rapport with the three older ones, who were more distant and taciturn. The eldest, Nguyen Ngoc Dien, a stocky man in his thirties, had a pale face and an elegiac gaze, in contrast with his companions, whose faces were burned by the sun and battered by the mud of the ricefields. He thinks he’s descended from the Emperor Minh Mang, one of the old peasants from Thanh Loi informed me, and he demands that the French restore the Annamite Empire.
It came back to me that in August 1937, during the year of turmoil in Saigon, I had been surprised one day to read in the newspaper that “General Nguyen Ngoc Dien, head of a Cao Dai sect, had been incarcerated in the Central Prison for urging his followers not to pay the capitation tax.
Bit by bit, the young cultist told me about their prison Calvary. How they had been taken from the Central Prison to the psychiatric ward of the Cho Quan hospital. He described in detail the daily sight of the agonizing deaths of their fellow prisoners. When both of their feet stiffened, he said, it meant that their life — and their suffering — was finally at an end.
This is what the head doctor of the Cho Quan hospital wrote in his professional report: Nguyen Ngoc Dien seems to pose no threat to himself, at least at present. . . . Staying with his family should be formally discouraged, however, since it would not prevent the transmission of his delirious ideas to the outside world and would therefore be a danger to society. Nguyen Ngoc Dien had already been confined three times to the mental asylum at Bien Hoa. This time they put him in a provincial jail along with us “politicals. The regime was still haunted by the memory of the peasant insurrections of 1916, which had been initially sparked by religious cultists.
Our cultists belonged to the sect called Tuyet Coc, or Abstention From Cereals. They subscribed to the Cao Dai (Very High) faith, a new religion born during the flowering of nationalist movements in 1925–1926. A section of the indigenous bourgeoisie — including former top administrators dissatisfied with their subordinate role in the colonial bureaucracy — tried to invent for themselves a transcendent space in the margins of colonial society where they could regain social preeminence. This new religion combined the three traditional religio-philosophical currents (Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism) with Christianity and a cult of guardian spirits. Its pantheon included Buddha, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Christ, Mohammed, Brahma, Vishnu, the poets Ly Thai Bach, Nguyen Binh Khiem and Victor Hugo, and political figures such as Gandhi and Sun Yat-sen. Its central religious temple was at Tay Ninh, 90 kilometers north of Saigon.
Aided by the economic crisis and the crushing of the “communist peasant movement of 1930–1931, Cao Dai achieved a rapid recruitment among the peasantry, who were oppressed by the large landowners and the rural notables. In 1932 this new religion counted around 350,000 adherents. In their quest for power, certain bourgeois Constitutionalists also converted to Caodaism.
Two years before we met, the rebel mystic Nguyen Ngoc Dien and his followers had made their way to western Cochinchina, in the Cao Dai diocese of Bac Lieu. Calling together all the priests and the faithful, he urged them to burn their capitation tax cards and henceforward to obey only orders from Heaven. That was how he came to be arrested. Because Nguyen An Ninh’s name appeared on a list of donors he had on him when arrested, he was interrogated about him. Naïvely, Nguyen Ngoc Dien replied: I know Nguyen An Ninh. I met him last June at Gia Dinh. I made him part of my mission to retake the land of Annam. He gave me a piaster and told me that he was sought by the Sûreté, but that I could always find him if I needed him.
One day there was an unbelievable windfall. Paper, envelopes and a pencil stub reached me, concealed in some clothes. This gave me the idea of writing an article for the Dien Tin newspaper defending the cultists (with their permission, of course). Aunt Two, my partner’s mother, who often came to the prison to visit her other daughter, managed to get acquainted with the chief Annamite screw, Sergeant Khanh. She knew that he was an addict, and would thus turn a blind eye to anything if she slipped him a little packet of opium every now and then. That was how my article was able to leave the prison and get published.
My Communist peasant companions did not seem to take the cultists seriously. But they were friendly enough to Canh and me, even though we were Trotskyists. One memorable night in November 1939, Dau, a peasant of around 25, got up on a bench and improvised a passionate speech to celebrate the twenty-second anniversary of the October Revolution. One of the older prisoners sang in Annamite an anti-French song of the 1920s which had been passed down by word of mouth: In the midst of a storm, we share the same boat. I had learned by heart this epic lament, composed in honor of Duy Tan, the emperor of Annam who had been deported in 1916. It also denounced Khai Dinh, father of the current emperor Bao Dai.
Annam, our country, lived in peace
Until the Tay [the French] seized it. . . .
Poor Emperor Duy Tan,
Wise king with a heart for the people. . . .
King Khai Dinh succeeded him,
The king who went to France to sell out the nation
Begging favors from the powerful. . . .
“You should join us at Thanh Loi, said my peasant friends. “We will help you. We’ll rent you a bit of land and build you a straw hut (there are plenty of areca tree trunks and palm tree leaves in the area). We’ll teach you how to plant sugar cane, and give you cuttings to start out with. When we get too hot at midday, we can jump into the river and swim in the clear, sparkling water — it’s great!
They saw the struggle as inseparable from their daily rural life, envisioning global social change in terms of how it would affect their own village community. Their sense of brotherhood moved me greatly. But it was only a daydream. At each release from prison our projects for the immediate future invariably dissipated as the current of life carried us to unexpected shores.
What became of my rural friends in the maelstrom of the Cochinchinese peasant insurrection in November 1940? Their village Thanh Loi, which was on the fringes of the Plain of Reeds, was apparently wiped out by machine-gun fire and bombs.
One morning in June 1940 I said goodbye to my companions in misfortune. I crossed the prison threshold and, with a light heart, strolled along the streets of My Tho, making my way to the sun-drenched market. I wanted to thank Phung (we referred to him as Brother Six), the town auto mechanic whose acquaintance with the prison guards had made it possible for me to communicate secretly with the outside world.
A girl on a bicycle suddenly stopped alongside me: My uncle invites you to come see him. Perplexed, I hesitated, but then followed her and soon found myself facing Inspector Tran Chanh of the Sûreté Political Police. “Saigon has asked us to hold on to you, he said. He had me taken to the My Tho Sûreté office, where there was an old French Police Commissioner whose demeanor did not bode well.
My partner, with a toddler in her arms, brought me a mess tin of food, which I ate sitting on the stoop of the police office. The Commissioner stood behind me, then suddenly, for no apparent reason, started to yell: It’s not me that stirred up trouble! I continued to eat without flinching. He disappeared. The Annamite interpreter endeavored to reassure me: He was gassed during the war. Sometimes he flares up at me for no reason!
Then, with horror, I caught sight of Chin Ngoc, my torturer from the Saigon Sûreté. With his full weight, he was stamping on the chest of a poor wretch lying outstretched on the tiled floor. Confess, and you’ll get off with a few years of hard labor and then be released. If you don’t, you’re dead!
The next day I was taken back to the Sûreté in Saigon. For the written questions the Sureté posed I concocted answers as evasive as possible. I realized that the next stop for me could be a special work camp in the Bien Hoa forests or forced house arrest somewhere in the provinces.
It turned out to be the latter, in Tra Vinh, a town on an island in the Mekong Delta. I was handcuffed and escorted there by a militiaman, traveling in a rattling public transport bus a whole day to cover 150 kilometers. For me, the name Tra Vinh had a heroic resonance because of a popular poem that had been surreptitiously passed to my mother in the village market and which I enthusiastically learned by heart when I was ten years old:
In Tra Vinh
There lived a remarkable person,
Chanh, a man of great boldness.
At night, he brooded on his hatred of the Prosecutor,
Nurturing his plot.
He would not be at peace till he had gunned him down. . . .
I found out later that the hero of this poem was a real person, who had daringly assassinated the Public Prosecutor in 1893. I was also intrigued by the rebellious tradition of the region. As early as 1889, an indigenous rebel had stabbed the French Administrator while he was having dinner with his wife.
We arrived at Tra Vinh in the evening. I spent the night on the filthy wooden planks of the hut next to the guardroom. The next day I was taken to Administrator Montaigut in the Provincial Governor’s office. His panther eyes locked into mine as he leaned toward my face and yelled: “Communist! He ordered me to be taken to the police station, where I would have to report every two weeks. The militiaman who took me there told me about a hut for rent very close by.
I strolled through the streets, my first walk in the city. All of a sudden someone came up to me and took my hand: it was Tran Huu Do, an elderly cultured man who was also in exile here. He took me to a small eating place named Lien Lac ( “Liaisons — which for the initiated indicated a clandestine meeting place). The owner, Anh Sau, refused to let us pay for our meal and warmly invited me to come back: We’ll work it out later. He also gave me a small oil lamp. I was to find out later that Montaigut was constantly harassing Anh Sau and trying to break up this haven for exiles where I had discovered such a warm welcome.
My friends in Phnom Penh sent me a little money. A poor neighbor, who hated the cops and pointed out the most violent ones to me, showed me how to make rice cakes to sell in the market. Then I had a little stall selling dried fish. Then I sold coffee and root-colored aperitifs on the sidewalk. I also made medicines, using the traditional recipes I had learned in prison.
My forced exile within the limits of the small settlement of Tra Vinh kept me isolated from what was happening in the rest of the country, or even in the nearby area. So I was completely taken by surprise one dark November night by the arrival of a convoy of trucks on which dozens upon dozens of dead and wounded peasants were piled, flanked by French police and Annamite militiamen. Without knowing it, I found myself in the heart of the peasant uprising that engulfed the whole of western Cochinchina in November 1940 and lasted until mid-December. The insurgents attacked the Annamite militia posts to obtain arms, set fire to town halls and other official buildings, killed cops who were known torturers, attacked patrols, and tried to block roads and canals and to destroy bridges.
Martial law was declared. French and Foreign Legion troops, backed up by French police, Annamite militias and Sûreté agents, searched the villages after first bombing them and raking them with machine-gun fire. Sharpshooters from Tonkin and Cambodia were also brought in. Over a hundred insurgents were killed in combat; untold thousands of noncombatant villagers were slaughtered by bombs or gunfire or taken away to be tortured. Of the 5800 people arrested, 221 were condemned to death — the executions were held in public to serve as examples — and 216 others were condemned to forced labor camps. The prisons were so overloaded that the excess prisoners were cooped up in barges where, under metal sheeting broiling in the sun, they died like flies. I later learned that my friend Trinh Van Lau, who had been a member of our League, met his death on one of those barges.
* * *
After nine months in Tra Vinh, I began to spit blood. I obtained permission to return to Saigon for medical care. Two days before I left, my mother suddenly appeared. I couldn’t believe my eyes. She had made her way all alone, across ricefields and through cities, to see me. Together we took a boat back to Saigon, traveling for a whole day and night.
I spent a month in the Gia Dinh hospital. Then, given shelter by Sister Five, I started looking for work.
Saigon had changed a lot. Behind the cathedral, a huge banner had been erected bearing a giant portrait of Marshal Pétain in front of a French flag, with the inscription:
UN SEUL CHEF: PÉTAIN.
UN SEUL DEVOIR: OBÉIR.
UNE SEULE DEVISE: SERVIR.
[A single leader: Pétain. A single duty: Obey. A single motto: Serve.]
This iron-fisted display was the work of Decoux, the fascistic admiral appointed as Governor-General by the Vichy government.* Charged with defending the interests of the white races against 25 million Indochinese, he had ordered villages to be bombed and the rebelling peasants of Cochinchina to be massacred.
For my illness I went to see Dr. Pham Ngoc Thach, a well-known opponent of the colonial regime. My X-rays revealed opaque nodules at the top of my lungs. He prescribed injections of calcium and rest, and did not ask for any payment.
I absolutely had to find a job. But I didn’t even bother to look for work at the French hardware firms, since shipments from France had ground to a halt due to the war. French firms survived by collaborating with the Japanese. My friend Lam Thanh Thi, who had set himself up as a commercial agent during those hard times, found me a job in a Japanese firm, Dainan Koosi. My job was to sort buffalo hides destined for export to Japan. Considering the state of my health, working among all the dried skins impregnated with arsenic in an atmosphere of unbreathable dust was almost intolerable. An elderly, opium-addicted male nurse whom my friend had gotten to know in the opium dens advised me to take crisalbine, a type of gold salt used at that time as a remedy for tuberculosis. I managed to get some on the black market for an exorbitant price. The old man gave me intravenous injections with it and refused to let me pay him.
I kept going in this way for several months until I was overcome by exhaustion. Finally, my Japanese boss moved me to the accounts department. From time to time, I had to travel to the provinces to check the accounts of the brickworks installed all along the Mekong River. It was a unique opportunity to get to know western Cochinchina a little better, particularly Vinh Long, Can Tho and Sadec. In the course of these journeys, with the driver’s help, I was able to practice driving. I had had a license for about twelve years without ever having touched a steering wheel. I still had the idea of studying in Paris one day and of paying for it by driving a taxi.
Then Dainan Koosi opened an office in Can Tho and I was transferred there. My lung disease seemed to be stable even though I got out of breath easily. In the small brickworks I was able to observe the superexploitation of the proletariat by a rapacious rural employer class, in total complicity with the local notables. The wretched peons — men, women and children alike — were paid by the piece. Covered in mud, they ground up clay from dawn to sunset. What they earned was often not enough to pay off the loans plus interest advanced to them by the boss. Sometimes whole families were condemned in this way to a lifetime of slavery. Those who tried to escape were caught by the village notables and beaten by their exploiter as long as he felt like it. I will never forget the solid whip with its stingray cords hanging on the wall behind the owner’s desk at the Van Xuong Brickworks in Vinh Long.
One day as I was at work at Dainan Koosi, I had a strange visit from a stocky, scar-faced man with a handlebar moustache and a mane of iron-gray hair. It was Nam Lua (Fifth Fire), feared leader of a well-known guerrilla gang in the Can Tho region. He had become a fervent convert to the “Mad Monk sect and felt threatened by the French, so he was seeking the protection of the Japanese. That was is how I found out about the existence of the Hoa Hao religious sect, named after the native village of its founder, Huynh Phu So. This young visionary, commonly referred to as the Mad Monk [le Bonze Fou], had begun in 1939 to preach a new kind of Buddhism marked by simplicity and ancestor worship that was well suited to appeal to the poor peasantry. The global slaughter currently under way seemed to confirm his prophecies announcing the end of the old world. His Litanies for the People alluded to the approaching end of the French occupation, and his prediction of the coming of the Buddha King promised the troubled rural poor a future of universal happiness. In their distress, many poor people found solace in this religion, or nourished their spirit of revolt with its mysticism. When the cult began rapidly spreading up and down the Mekong River, the colonial regime became apprehensive. The French Sûreté interned the Mad Monk as a mental case in the Cho Quan hospital . . . until he converted his doctor! He was then forced to live in the far west, at Bac Lieu. Then the Japanese police took him under their protection.
I learned that Chi Nam Thin, my partner’s elder sister whom I had run into a few times at the My Tho prison, had been put under house arrest in Ben Tre after three years in detention. I knew she was on her own with two children. How was she managing? I decided to go to Ben Tre.
On the way there, on the ferry across the Mekong, I ran into Duc. We had met in the Central Prison in 1936. I was happy to be able to share a few piasters with him. He belonged to the Communist cell in Ben Tre, and gave me news about his comrade Tong, with whom I had become friends in prison. Little did I know that not long afterwards, in October 1945, this same Tong, promoted to be an agent in the Vietminh secret police, would try to capture me in the Thu Duc area. How is it possible to imagine that someone who faced the enemy together with you, who lived side by side with you in prison, could one day want to take your life?
During one of my trips to the brickworks along the Mekong River I came across yet another former fellow prisoner, Pham Van Kinh, a Stalinist party worker and veteran of Poulo Condore. He was wandering around at loose ends, living clandestinely. I got him hired at Vinh Long, and he set himself up in a straw hut on the bank of the Mekong. One evening, who should I see in the hut but Tran Van Giau. He told me he had escaped from the Ta Lai camp in Bien Hoa. He seemed to be relaxed and carefree, as though he was enjoying the state of being an escapee. We bathed together in the Mekong, then he disappeared.
It was balm to my heart to learn of the arrival of my friend Tran Van Thach, who had been exiled to Can Tho after his return from Poulo Condore at the end of 1944. He was the one who had gotten me the proofreading job at Le Flambeau d’Annam when I got out of prison in 1937. He was living in a room on the bank of the Mekong. I brought him some soap — and my deep affection. In the evening we would often go for a stroll together by the river. He once confided his dream to me, in English: I would like to go abroad after the war. It never happened. In October 1945, while in the resistance movement in Ben Suc, he was shot by thugs hired by the Stalinists Tran Van Giau and Duong Bach Mai.
During this period I also ran into my old friend Ho Huu Tuong, who was also in exile in Can Tho after being released from Poulo Condore. This was a troubling reunion. He told me that he had broken with his past after years of meditation during his imprisonment. He now believed that the emancipation of humanity by the proletariat had been the biggest myth of the nineteenth century, and the revolutionary potential of the European and North American proletariat the biggest myth of the twentieth. I could find no words to refute this haughty, detached position of the very man who had initiated me into the struggle so long ago. I felt as though I had already been erased from his past. Our friendship slipped away before my eyes, like the flow of the Mekong.
* * *
On March 10, 1945, Can Tho woke up to martial law. As astonished crowds gathered in front of huge posters put up during the night, I saw the proclamation by the Commander in Chief of the Japanese Army, which ran roughly as follows:
In view of the developing military situation against the Anglo-American attacks, the Greater Japan government feels obliged to assume sole responsibility for defending Indochina, while declaring that it has no intention of territorial conquest. The Greater Japan government will do everything possible to help the peoples of Indochina, hitherto toiling under the colonial yoke, to fulfill their ardent desire for independence. The Japanese army will annihilate only the present colonial government and its army, and does not consider native soldiers as enemies. . . .
During the night the Kempeitai (Japanese police) had imprisoned the French Administrator and all the French Sûreté agents and police. They had also rounded up all the French people and put them in large centers inside guarded perimeters.* The French colonial regime, after eighty years of crushing with terror, violence and corruption all the attempts of its slaves to break their chains, had collapsed in a single night, March 9–10, 1945. The Japanese replaced the French at the head of the system of oppression, presenting themselves as liberators. The Commander of the Japanese army, Tsuchihashi, replaced Decoux as Governor-General of Indochina. Under the aegis of the Japanese, Bao Dai, the Emperor of Annam,* proclaimed the independence of Vietnam on March 11, 1945, and called on Tran Trong Kim, a retired school inspector, to form an imperial government in Hue.
One evening, Lu Sanh Hanh turned up at my doorway. I hadn’t seen him since Phnom Penh. He recounted his adventures during his five years underground. Having escaped the enormous roundup at the beginning of the war in September 1939, he went into hiding in the extreme west of Cochinchina, where he took a position as tutor to the only daughter of the brave farmer who hid him. I was moved by the story of his romance with this girl from the ricefields, and his heartbreak when he had to leave her.
Lu put me in contact with Nguyen Van Linh, an older comrade who had played a significant role in the Indochinese Left Opposition group in France. He had returned to Cochinchina at the beginning of the war, and was now teaching in a private school in Can Tho. It was a warm and stimulating encounter. We gathered at his house to discuss the political situation, without yet formulating any plan of action. Finally back in the company of people who shared my ideas, I came to life again. Lu Sanh Hanh wanted to bring together the surviving comrades and reconstitute the League of Internationalist Communists.
In Saigon, the nationalist groups, which had been outlawed under Decoux, began to stir. The National Party for the Independence of Vietnam, led by intellectuals, joined with the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao mystico-religious sects in calling for a demonstration to express the nation’s gratitude to the Japanese army for freeing us from our French enemies. But the Japanese banned the demonstration. The Cao Dai sect, which commanded a paramilitary force of several thousand peasant followers trained by the Japanese, had participated in the coup alongside the Japanese troops. The Hoa Hao, until then relatively unknown, came on the scene at the bidding of their leader, the Mad Monk, who had emerged from his hiding place in the Japanese zone. In 1945, in their fief of Chau Doc, the Hoa Hao followers forged spears, knives and sabers and underwent military training. The sect set up its own security force and wielded a certain amount of de facto power. In July 1945 many of its members enlisted as auxiliaries in the Japanese army.
In April 1945, with the blessing of Minoda, the new Japanese Governor of Cochinchina, Dr. Pham Ngoc Thach and a handful of intellectuals launched the JAG (Jeunesse d’Avant-Garde/Thanh Nien Tienphong) [Vanguard Youth]. Imbued with a jingoist ideology of the Stalinist Komsomol and Hitler Youth type, this movement contributed to the maintenance of order by the Japanese and to civil defense. In the remotest countryside as well as in the urban areas, it mobilized everyone over the age of thirteen into brigades that demanded an oath of unquestioning obedience to superiors. Uniformed and armed with sharpened bamboo sticks, these boy scouts marched under a yellow flag with a red star, singing On the March, an anthem praising the ancient heroes who had defeated the Chinese at Chi Lang and at the Bach Dang River. Those who failed to join this organization were accused of not loving their country. A parallel organization of Vanguard Women was set up to carry out a similar role with female youth. In the cities, the movement soon became the de facto power in every factory, every office, every workshop and every school. Branch sections were in every area of the public services. It was the same in the countryside, from the main county towns to the smallest hamlet. At the beginning of August 1945 the JAG held a mass swearing-in ceremony in Can Tho.
During this period there was a huge Anglo-American air offensive. In the west, I had been far away from the war. But one day when I had come to Saigon I got caught in a bombardment and ducked into a ditch. After the piercing whistle, followed by the explosions, I felt the ground tremble. The large trees bordering Boulevard Norodom were literally cut to pieces. The neighborhoods of straw huts were in flames. The dead and wounded lay everywhere under the onslaught of shrapnel and fire. JAG teams gathered up the corpses and cleared away the rubble. These massive air attacks were a daily occurrence. The B-29s flew at very high altitudes so as to evade the Japanese antiaircraft guns. Sky-high flames blazed from burning fuel depots.
When I went to see my mother and brothers in the village, my peasant friends showed me the cartridge cases they had picked up after low-flying planes had strafed the villagers, in the belief, perhaps, that they were Japanese troops in camouflage.
“Your boys are in danger, my prophetic Brother Seven had told my cousin, who thought that Brother Seven had foreseen the misfortune because the Japanese had concealed antiaircraft guns under the trees surrounding the house. But nothing disastrous happened until later, after the Japanese retreat, when soldiers of the French Expeditionary Corps, in a mopping-up operation, rounded up all my cousin’s sons and shot them at the place called Cau Sat (Iron Bridge) and threw their bodies into the river.
*See Translators Notes.
Chapter 6 from Ngo Van’s book In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary (AK Press, 2010).
In the Crossfire is a translation of Ngo Van’s Au pays de la Cloche fêlée (Paris: L’Insomniaque, 2000) and of excerpts from Ngo Van’s Au pays d’Héloïse (L’Insomniaque, 2005). It has been edited by Ken Knabb and Hélène Fleury and translated by Hélène Fleury, Hilary Horrocks, Ken Knabb and Naomi Sager.