First military advisors of Viet Minh
During the World War II, the Japanese fascists invaded and seized French power in Indochina. However, in the summer of 1944, after France was liberated by the Allies, some French who joined De Gaulle in some parts of Vietnam in Indochina began to seek ways to provide intelligence information to the headquarters of the Allies in Kunming.
Kunming, a city in southwest China, was the base of the US 14th Air Force (also known as the Flying Tigers), led by General Claire Chennault. At that time, they began to harass shipping and supply routes of Japanese fascists in Indochina. The success of these bombing strikes depended on accurate weather reports from inside Indochina, as well as intelligence on movements, bases and treasures of Japanese fascists. In addition, an intelligence network in Indochina was also needed to rescue the US pilots when their aircrafts were shot down or dropped, and to hide them from the Japanese troops, and if possible, take them out of Indochina back to Kunming.
The OSS had participated in this information gathering activity from Kunming. An established intelligence network called the GBT group (assembled from the first letter of the team members’ names) worked in southern China near the China-Vietnam border area, using the network in their French business bases in Indochina. Mac Shin, born on October 29, 1923, in Hong Kong (China), fled to Kunming when the Japanese fascists occupied Hong Kong, then worked as a radio operator for the GBT.
In March 1945, Japan overthrew the French colonial government in Indochina. Since most of the French were imprisoned, the valuable source of intelligence from inside Indochina to the Allies in Kunming was exhausted. The OSS realised that it was necessary to find a way to organise the collection of reliable intelligence from anti-fascist Vietnamese people.
In November 1944, Lieutenant Shaw, a pilot of the US 51st Air Force landed in Cao Bang due to an engine failure. Shaw was protected by the Viet Minh. Uncle Ho directly took him back to China for the Allies. With that, the relationship between the Viet Minh resistance force and the Allies began. The US military in Kunming decided to send two GBT intelligence agents to northern Vietnam to train and work with the Viet Minh forces in order to re-establish anti-Japanese intelligence operations in Indochina, thereby supporting the 14th Air Force. The two agents were Chinese-American businessman Frankie Tan (the T in the GBT group), and Mac Shin who was in charge of the radio.
In April 1945, Uncle Ho, Mac Shin and Frankie Tan were taken in a US military aircraft from Kunming to the China-Vietnam border area in north of Cao Bang. From there, along with some Viet Minh members who were selected for intelligence training and a group of security guards, they secretly crossed the border to come to the revolutionary base of Pac Bo. To keep it a secret, Frankie Tan had an alias of Tam Xinh Shan while Mac Shin was Nguyen Tu Tac. After that, the group continued to go through the mountains of Viet Bac to avoid the Japanese patrol teams, followed the revolutionary bases, and in May 1945, they arrived at the Tan Trao base.
Mac Shin described this dangerous journey as mainly walking, sometimes riding horses. Both Mac Shin and Frankie Tan were armed with light weapons, dressed in ethnic minority clothes for disguise, and kept quiet when interacting with locals to avoid detection. The group moved slowly and often at night, as well as avoided large roads and open places. Occasionally, rains turned the ground into slippery mud, but Uncle Ho, who was over 50 years old at that time, still refused to ride his horse (according to Mac Shin).
At that time in the North, Vietnam was suffering from a terrible famine. Mac Shin recalled that the food supply was always limited. However, people at Viet Minh’s facilities were still happy to greet and provide them with food, sometimes even with a chicken. On occasion, the group had to drink water from the trunk of a bamboo.
Mac Shin was fascinated by the warmth and caring of Uncle Ho, whom he at that time only knew as Ah Kung. Uncle Ho and Mac Shin could communicate easily in English and Chinese. Mac Shin also said that Uncle Ho was very generous and tolerant with his “young” style, but he also showed strict implementation of secret operating principles. Once, when crossing a river, Mac Shin caught a strange animal swimming towards him. He pulled out a pistol and fired a full magazine at the animal. Later, Uncle Ho criticised him for wasting precious bullets and making loud noises that could reveal all of them.
At Tan Trao, Mac Shin established and conducted one to two radio communication sessions with Kunming daily. He reported information on the weather and Japanese troop movements collected by the Viet Minh reconnaissance network. In addition, he also instructed some Viet Minh officers to use the radio. Mac Shin was in a simple hut not far from Uncle Ho’s. That was quite special as this area was in the Safety Zone, where no Allied employee was allowed to access freely, except Mac Shin. For Mac Shin, the 128 days with Uncle Ho, with “Ah Kung”, are unforgettable days.
Mac Shin sent me two photos. The first is a picture of him and the Viet Minh guerrillas practicing with US weapons. On the back of the photo, Mac Shin noted, “45 Thomson submachine guns, 30 carbines, 45 automatic pistols.” The second picture shows him taking a shower with a team member of the guard force of the area, with the caption “Brother Nong Quoc Tuan, the youngest member of Uncle Ho’s security unit at Central Safety Area in Tan Trao, during World War II, 1945”.
For a few weeks, only Frankie Tan and Mac Shin were the two Allied agents present at the Viet Minh base. Besides training and communication work, they also supported the construction of a field runway in Tan Trao Valley and preparations for the parachute jump of the “Deer Team” shortly after.
After the success of the August Revolution, agents Frankie Tan, Mac Shin, and members of the “Deer Team” were ordered to return home. The short time spent living in the Viet Minh war zone with Uncle Ho left good memories that never faded in Mac Shin’s mind. For him, President Ho Chi Minh was always been respectfully and cordially called: “Ah Kung – Uncle Ho”.
By Dao Ngoc Ninh
The Vietnam – America joint military unit
NDO – From the end of 1944 to the beginning of 1945, a cooperative and supportive relationship between Viet Minh and the Allied forces was established (starting from the rescue of Lieutenant Shaw, an American pilot, in late 1944), leading to the US Office of Strategic Services in Kunming (China) deciding to send the Deer Team to operate in northern Vietnam at the Viet Minh’s Tan Trao battlefield. The mission of the team was to parachute into Tuyen Quang, prepare the base for the Viet Minh forces to receive weapons and act as military training advisers
In May 1945, Lieutenant Dan Phelan parachuted into Tan Trao base camp and joined Viet Minh forces to prepare all work, including the construction of a small field runway to receive Allied aircraft. After that, on July 16, 1945, the Deer Team organised the first parachute jump to Kim Lung Village, within the Tan Trao war zone (Tuyen Quang Province). The team’s leader, Major Allison Thomas, joined the first mission along with Sergeant William Zielski and Sergeant Henry Prunier. On July 30, 1945, the second parachute completed the whole Deer Team personnel, with Lieutenant Rene Defourneux, Sergeants Lawrence Vogt and Aaron Squires, and first class Private Paul Hoagland in charge of a medic.
Uncle Ho instructed his forces to select staff in the Liberation Army to form with the Deer Team mission a company called “Vietnam-US joint military” unit. The unit was led by Dam Quang Trung, the commander of an army of about 200 men. Major Thomas was considered the Company Chief of Staff. During their stay at Tan Trao battlefield, the Deer Team members focused on training the Vietnamese – American company to use weapons and guerrilla tactics. At the same time, three Dakota C-47 transport planes dropped some weapons.
Up until now, the volumes and types of weapons and equipment provided by the US to the joint company and the Viet Minh resistance forces have not been counted exactly. However, based on the number of weapons that the Vietnam-US company used in the battle to liberate Thai Nguyen on August 20, 1945, there were a machine gun, two 60 mm mortars, four Bazooka anti-tank rocket launchers and eight Brno rifles, 20 Thompson submachine guns, 60 carbines, 20 Colt revolvers, some binoculars and weapons brought in by road with Frankie Tan and Mac Shin (the first two Allied agents accompanying Uncle Ho to the Tan Trao war zone, in which Mac Shin provided the forces with 45 Thomson submachine guns, 30 carbines and 45 automatic pistols). To surmise, the numbers of American weapons supplied to the Viet Minh were probably about, or a little more than, those listed above.
On August 14, 1945, Japanese fascists declared unconditional surrender to Allied forces. A day later, the Uprising Commission ordered the Liberation Army units to attack the enemy bases. On August 16, 1945, the Party Central Committee, the Viet Minh General Committee and President Ho Chi Minh ordered a general uprising to regain power nationwide.
At 14:00 on August 16, 1945, the Liberation Army came from Tan Trao to attack the Japanese in Thai Nguyen Town. The Vietnamese-American company and the Deer Team also participated in this battle. The Vietnam-US company was tasked with besieging and destroying the most difficult target, that was the Japanese barrack in the town. On August 20, 1945, the Japanese army in the station still resisted, forcing the Liberation Army Command sent an ultimatum to the major who was the commander of the Japanese troops there to call for surrender. In order to increase the prestige of the Vietnamese Liberation Army and the Allies forces in that combat, there was an ultimatum in English signed by Major Thomas, sending to the Japanese troops to call for surrender. These two ultimatums were archived at the Vietnam Institute for Military History.
At the Department of Japanese Gendarmerie (stationed at Gauchie House), the Japanese troops leaned on solid fences and stubbornly resisted. The Vietnamese army sent a Bazooka gun team led by Squad leader Sung Hai to burst a wall of the house. The revolution troops used pistols and grenades to destroy the enemy and capture the target. The Liberation Army commanders, including Vo Nguyen Giap and Dam Quang Trung, accompanied by Major Thomas, went to the field to inspect the location captured from the Japanese troops. After that, the Deer Team and the newly formed Fourth Liberation Army Unit marched to Hanoi. On September 9, 1945, Major Thomas and the Deer Team members completed their missions in Hanoi and were ordered to return home.
The presence of the Deer Team in Vietnam was short-lived, about 80 days. In October 1995, after half a decade, they had the opportunity to return to Vietnam at the invitation and arrangement of the Vietnam – US Society, at a time when the two countries had officially normalised diplomatic relations. For members of the Deer Team and intelligence officers like Frankie Tan and Mac Shin, it was a one-time return to Vietnam, because after that, none of them had the chance to come back again.
The days they visited Vietnam were filled with memories of “a time far away”. The Deer Team members showed Vietnamese friends their old souvenirs they still cherished to remember their days at Tan Trao battlefield. Henry Prunier wore the suit sewed in Hanoi before he was ordered to return to his home country, which he kept carefully for many years. At a party held in Hanoi to welcome the delegation, General Vo Nguyen Giap attended. Upon seeing and recognising Henry Prunier, the General took an orange on the plate and made a swinging motion like throwing a grenade so that Henry Prunier could see that the General had not forgotten his military adviser after so many years.
During the visit to Tan Trao war zone, the members of the Deer Team returned to where they lived in the past. When arriving at Tan Trao Banyan, Major Thomas recounted the original plan that the team would travel by road, but because the Japanese troops were scouring so hard, they had to use air route. Due to the bad weather, the pilot could not recognise the signs of the parachute landing on the ground, so the team had to jump with “closed eyes” and Major Thomas’s parachute was caught in Tan Trao Banyan. Afterwards, the Deer Team was given a meal of beef, and when he recalled that memory, Major Thomas laughed and praised “the beef that day was delicious”.
When visiting the town of Thai Nguyen (now Thai Nguyen City, the capital of Thai Nguyen Province) to recall the battle to liberate the town with the Vietnamese-American company, Major Thomas showed a photo of a house. He said the house was home to the liberation army command headquarters during the battle and said he wanted to revisit the house. A quick search was organised, and eventually the organisers found a local senior teacher. He recognised the gate of the house in the picture and took everyone there. It is now the office of Thai Nguyen Power Company but, fortunately, the gate from the French colonial era still exists. Major Thomas said at that time, despite receiving the radio order not to participate in battles against the Japanese with the Viet Minh forces, he decided not to comply with this order.
Looking back at the memories of members of the Deer Team, the initial military advisers of the Vietnamese revolutionary armed forces during their pre-uprising days, as well as their return to Vietnam after 50 years, is to be able to see the mutual understanding between the Vietnamese people and people in other countries, including the Americans. Such relations need to be promoted and cherished so that the two nations can work together towards a common peace and prosperity in the world.
By Dao Ngoc Ninh – Translated by Nhan Dan Online