Academic journal article Air Power History

A Mission of Vengeance: Vichy French in Indochina in World War II

Academic journal article Air Power History

A Mission of Vengeance: Vichy French in Indochina in World War II

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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. …

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