Edwin J. Witzenburger P51 Pilot
Deliver us from Evil
Written in November 1945
Aboard a Troop Ship
Returning from Calcutta to New York
This excellently written biography appears as written by the pilot in 1945.
The target was a beauty!
Our group S-2 had just received an intelligence report that the Nips were using an old French museum located in the center of the city of Hanoi, French Indo-China, for their Regional Military Headquarters. Major Blankenship, Acting C.O. of the 51st Fighter Group, and I discussed the target as we studied minutely the surrounding checkpoints and methods of approach.
Ed Blank decided, "How about puffing in our bid to Wing A-3 for this target. It looks damn good to me."
We had discussed a logical plan of attack. Surprise would be a principal weapon. With just two P-51's we could accurately skip four 500# demolition bombs, four to five second delay fuses, into this pinpoint target from roof top level. Accuracy was necessary to keep from damaging adjacent native quarters.
Our 51st Fighter Group was under the command of Brigadier General Kennedy's 69th Composite Wing. Lt. Colonel Henry J. Amen Heading the A-3 Operations Section was as clear thinking, aggressive minded officer as one would find. He was our man.
Enthusiastically we presented our plans. If we take off by 0915, we'll arrive at the target by 1040. The Japs will have just completed their morning tea and we'll nab'em right at their desks.
"Major Witzenburger you forget our policy," answered the Col. "We can't risk having the Group Commander and his Deputy fly on the same mission, can we?"
Damn it all, I reasoned, he's right. But I'd sure like to go and there's no one I'd rather team up with than Old Blank.
Blankenship, I like to believe, thought the same thing, for we anxiously discussed every argument we could think of. Amen weakened and grinned. "O.K, but this will be the last one for the two of you together, remember that."
I knew darn well all the time he listened to us, he wanted nothing more than to go along himself and I respected him for this. However, by this time the morning attack was impossible; consequently, we decided instead to give the Nips an afternoon party.
That afternoon, March 3rd, we took off from Kunming in southern China on the mission that was a factor leading up to an experience stranger than I could ever dream. Blank did a perfect job of navigation. Our course led us parallel to the Red River, keeping behind and below the range of mountains that extended some ten miles to the West. In this way the Japs had no warning that would have alerted the entire Delta Region around the city of Hanoi.
On this course we intersected a portion of the Black River at a point about 25 miles almost due west of Hanoi. Here we hit the deck and flew eastward in canyons of the last remaining mountains toward Hanoi. With the target only 10 miles away and indicating 320 mph, our bombs would be released one minute and 52 seconds later, hardly time for our pals to set down their glasses of saki.
Thirty seconds later Blank had the shining gold dome of the museum in his sights. We climbed slightly to attain a good angle from which to skip the bombs into the museum. Concentrating on holding a very close position on his wing, Blank's voice came distinctly over the radio: "Ready, one--two--three--DROP!"
Instantly I looked forward barely in time to see the museum dome, mounted with a wireless antenna looming above me. Instinctively I pulled into a sharp climbing turn to the right with a loud "Damn!" It took just a fraction of a second to sweep by the mast just feet from my wing tip. Blankenship executed an identical maneuver to the left. We joined on the deck and fish-tailed beyond the outskirts of the city. Here we swung into a steep climbing turn to the left and surveyed the results of our effort. Black smoke now billowed up in a great column where the museum was located.
We made three more passes on the smoking building each time raking it with machine gun fire. We then flew north-northwest reconnoitering the railroad to the China border of Yunnan Province at Lao Kay.
Jubilantly we landed at Kunming after reconnoitering the railroad North along the Red River. We felt the mission was a complete success. The building had certainly been hit squarely. The element of surprise had been achieved, for there was no ground fire of any type observed in the entire area to indicate preparedness. This otherwise uneventful mission proved to be the forerunner of a series of "Never-to-be- Forgotten" experiences.
It was two days later, on the 5th of March, that I led a flight of four Mustangs to dive bomb the marshaling yards at Vinh, a railroad town on the French Indo-China coast about 145 miles south of Hanoi. Briefing included sweeping the railroad north to Hanoi, and from there return to base in Kunming. Further instructions were to determine the extent of damage to the Museum, the target of the previous mission. Naturally, the latter instructions hit the spot.
As my flight approached Hanoi, after hitting the primary target, I called instructions for the second element to climb and give the city with its ack-ack emplacements a wide berth. My wingman stayed with me to observe the extent of damage while flying at a comfortable distance to the side.
I moved the prop pitch full forward and increased the power setting to 61" manifold pressure, maximum power for this Rolls-Royce Merlin engine without the use of War Emergency Boost. Without external fuel tanks or bombs, my Mustang responded beautifully. By the time we reached the southern limits of the city my airspeed indicated 380 mph on the deck.
The airport on the southwest border of Hanoi, Gia Lam, flashed by as we headed directly for the burned building. Smugly I noticed the dome and wireless antenna had been completely blown off. Split seconds passed. The fighter buffeted slightly indicating to me small arms ground fire. I had been hit! The following second I flashed by the building. Only a portion of the first two floors remained. These were blackened by fire. A quick glance also caught the shattered openings that had once been windows. My satisfaction was not complete. For during those moments was the knowledge my ship has been damaged.
A thin spray of fluid hit my neck. The coolant line! My heart skipped a beat! The odor of the coolant fluid, Prestone, spread through the cockpit. Instinctively I switched the coolant shutter to the full open position and checked the cylinder head temperature gauge. Already it had climbed 5 degrees above the 90 degree Centigrade reading which I had set manually before hitting the target. My eyes smarted from the fluid as I eased the ship into a climbing turn to the west toward the mountains.
"Hello Red Flight, Hello Red Flight, looks like the old four dollar rifle has paid off. I'm heading for the hills. Stay with me."
"O.K. Major," answered Lt. Searcy, leader of the 2nd element.
About this time my wingman flew up alongside to inform me that I was streaming some kind of fluid rather badly. l opened the cockpit hatch a bit and retarded the power and RPM considerably, but still continued climbing. Very anxiously I watched the coolant gauge. All too soon the temperature rose. Black smoke was being emitted from the exhaust stacks. The engine began to vibrate. l realized this was it --- and the mountains seemed so very far away. My right arm went forward and pulled the canopy release while l simultaneously ducked my head. The entire bubble canopy whipped off. Now fumes from the laboring engine were very strong.
"Looks like this is it 'fellas'; hang around awhile."
"O.K. Major, we'll stay with you. Good luck!"
l always believed the best way to leave a P-51 was to roll over and just drop out. But I waited, hoping against hope the engine would keep going till I reached the mountains ahead.
Instead the vibration grew worse. Smoke really belched out now. I unfastened my safety belt and harness. The altimeter read 5000 feet; the airspeed read 180 mph. Now fire poured out from beneath the cowling. This was it! Automatically I braced myself to remain in the cockpit until the airplane became inverted. I rolled the Mustang over and was torn from the cockpit.
The manner in which one remains in full possession of his mental faculties during such a time is amazing. I recall exactly my train of thought during these split seconds. My chances to escape, I knew, were better if I could reach the ground quickly. This meant a delayed opening of the chute. But my natural instincts prevailed. I pulled the rip cord. The next instant a tremendous jerk jarred my uppers and I found myself swaying in mid air beneath an astonishingly large silk canopy. Everything was suddenly very quiet. The three fighters circling above looked very fast.
Then I looked down at the still earth so far below. It felt ridiculous to be suspended so far above, just hanging there waiting for the Nips to gather underneath.
"I've got to increase this rate of descent," I told myself, and reached upward in an attempt to grasp the risers to accelerate the descent.
It was then I noticed the D-ring of the rip cord was still in my right hand.
"Damn, but that's clever of me to hold on to this. It'll make a dandy souvenir," I told myself. But when I looked below again and could notice no progress, it seemed like a hell of a time to start collecting souvenirs; I dropped it with disgust.
Directly below were scattered rice paddies intermingled with patches of trees. Again looking up, I felt so very grateful to see the three Mustangs of Red Flight still circling. Below everything was strange and undesirable, but above was the strong tie of comradeship of which I still felt a part. At this moment, comparing my situation with that of my buddies, I realized what a fool I had been to have my wingman follow me through the target area. How easily he might have been in my place at this moment. I thought, too, of all the combat missions I had flown in China and had never lost a man in any flight or squadron that I led. In a way it was ironical that I should be the first of any to be shot down by enemy ground fire.
The earth appeared decidedly closer now. I began preparations for the landing by unfastening the leg straps. There was a definite drifting motion toward the rice paddies indicating a strong surface wind.
Then I made a costly mistake. The wind was in my face drifting me backward. Now the earth was coming up at an alarmingly fast rate. I tried to swing myself around in order not to fall on my back after hitting the ground, but was much too slow and had just partially turned, when the earth hit me with a terrific impact. A sharp pain shot through my right ankle as I fell on my right side.
Rising instantly, I gathered in the canopy of the chute. An emergency jungle kit is fastened to the harness to form a back cushion. Withdrawing the knife, I hastily proceeded to cut the kit loose. In my haste I cut my finger slightly. Disgustedly I picked up the whole works and stumbled over to the nearest trees to conceal the parachute. A searing pain shot through my ankle each time it supported my weight.
But my alarm toward being found spurred me to the thicket where I secreted the pack. Then after checking the 45 automatic pistol at my hip reassuringly, started half running and limping through the brush.
The heat and high humidity, together with the added effort caused by the injured ankle, tired me after a few short minutes. I decided to pick some particularly heavy foliage and hide till my breath returned.
Then voices sounded from the direction I'd left. Instinctively I burrowed close to the earth and cocked the 45. Reaching for my jungle knife to cut away some vines my throat suddenly became even more dry. Apparently I had not securely fastened the knife after my unsuccessful bout with the jungle kit. It was not there! My concern grew. As I realized the knife could lead to this trail.
With this I arose and cautiously moved away from the voices behind. My ankle was swelling rapidly. It was necessary to favor it considerably to keep going at a steady pace. The effort required raised plenty of perspiration. After about twenty minutes the trees ended next to a well-used dirt road. I peered to either side. Nobody was around. I had been walking in a westerly direction, and the mountains could now be seen some ten miles away. I must reach them! It seemed reasonable to cross the road, continue down the side of a slope, and there find a good hiding place till dark.
The brush was thick so I sprawled down about 100 yards from the road. It was wonderful to rest. I took stock of the articles in my escape vest and money belt. Then, taking off my shoe, bound the ankle for greater support. By this time it was two-thirty in the afternoon.
I realized progress would be slow in the darkness, but if I could remain on my own for at least twenty four hours, the chances of capture would be much reduced. Then with the money I had, if things got rough, I could enlist the help of natives to cover the 200 miles back to the China border. It all seemed so simple.
Time passed slowly. The sun was still high in the heavens. Occasionally a vehicle, undoubtedly Jap I thought, passed by on the road above, but none stopped.
Suddenly I heard the brush move. Hugging the ground close, I grasped the 45 determinedly and held my breath. It seemed there were sounds all around. The brush was being systematically scoured. I cursed myself for being fool enough to hide so close to the road, but it was too late now. The searchers kept approaching till I felt like the hub of a wheel whose spokes were guiding them to the center. One was very close now. Then two brown feet appeared through the undergrowth. The brush parted and a native stood in a small clearing so close I could have touched him. He had a sturdy body covered with a white shirt and brown skirt. A typical wide straw hat shaded his face. He glanced around speculatively. Then his eyes rested incredulously on the ground. I realized with a terrible sinking sensation it was the spot my feet were in. In a fraction the native recovered from his surprise and bounded off into the brush.
"This is it Knucklehead. Better get out of here, but fast." I arose and stood above the undergrowth. My discoverer was crashing his way toward the road along with two others.
With my pistol in hand I turned downhill expecting any moment to see Japs coming over the hill. Reaching an irrigation ditch about 20 feet wide, I flung myself into it. It was much too deep to wade and in an attempt to swim, the pistol got thoroughly wet.
Uniformed figures appeared waving on the road above waving their hands and shouting, "Hey Boy, Hey Boy, French! French!"
By their uniforms I realized they were not Nips. Undecided, I retreated a few steps clutching the automatic expectantly. Feeling foolish then, I decided they must be French. Surely no enemies would act like this.
The first ones to reach the irrigation ditch were greatly excited. But they were white and they were smiling. My heart beat fiercely in thanksgiving.
"Quick, quick, Japoneis! Japoneis!', they pointed southward along the road. Urging was unnecessary. Noticing my limp they practically carried me up the slope to a waiting truck. All the soldiers appeared so sincerely happy, that any apprehension I had up to that time disappeared. They boosted me inside; then huddled around.
"Ze Japoneis, they look for you," a swarthy complexioned fellow explained in broken English. "We have guarded all roads to find you first."
"We are Legionnaires," another broke in proudly. "You know the French Foreign Legion?"
I nodded vigorously. Gratitude welled up inside of me. In an effort to portray my appreciation, I removed from a packet the now soaked picture of my wife to show them. They all gathered around smiling in approval. "Aha, ze Madame, eh? Bien, bien." They seemed to understand this was a gesture implying that I trusted them.
All this time my pistol remained unmentioned in its holster. Although they regarded it with interesting glances, no comment was made.
One pointed out the rear of the truck. A burned twisted wreckage of what two hours before had been a slim beautiful P-51 fighter Mustang, now lay close to the road. I felt sick and empty inside but managed to smile ruefully at what they considered a huge joke.
After about thirty minutes of driving, we arrived at a large impressive looking military camp. We drove under an arch inscribed "Tong de Sontay". My rescuers helped me to a building, quite modern in appearance. Here I was met by Commandant Tokhadze, Le Chef de Batallon. A commandant is equivalent to the rank of major in our army. He appeared every inch an officer with his proud military bearing, short clipped mustache, and swagger stick.
"Welcome to Tong," he greeted in excellent English. "You are all right?"
One of my rescuers explained in French that my ankle had been injured. After a short conversation an orderly was dispatched.
"He will summon a doctor for you. You must sit down."
I noticed a picture of Marshall Petain on the wall behind his desk. That old suspicion returned. To me Petain was the symbol of the old Vichy French Government; why should it be here? My knowledge of the political situation in Indo-China obviously was very limited.
While waiting, many questions were asked. Those of a military nature I politely evaded. My rank and obvious youth apparently impressed him for he ventured some information about himself.---"Our garrison is composed of French Legionnaires supplemented by native Annamite troops. I am a Georgian," he continued quite proudly. "For over 35 years I have been a soldier in the French Foreign Legion. Most of these men you see here have never been to France. The Legion is composed of individuals originating from all countries. We fight for the principles and objectives in which France is involved. The Legion symbolizes a strong fraternity of men boastful of the knowledge that their record is the finest of any fighting force in the world. Our allegiance is primarily to the uniform and traditions for which it stands."
I listened to his conversation with interest.. This was my first lesson on the military system of this French Colonial Government.
A doctor came, and after examining my ankle explained it was a sprain. "Judging by the swelling it is a rather bad one."
My jungle vest caught his eye. In friendly gratitude I presented it to him. It contained a number of morphine surettes, which I later cussed myself for being so liberal in dispensing, the sulfur powders, and a number of additional medicines.
He was most pleased. "Our medical supplies are very limited; we have none of the advanced medicines your surgeons use."
During this examination, the General commanding the base arrived. He spoke little English. Through Major Takhadze I conveyed my anxiety that the 14th Air Force be notified of my safety. The General nodded in assent.
"Is it possible," I asked further, "to contact the American Forces in China to arrange for an airplane to land here at Tong? Fighters could be used for protection overhead while a suitable plane picked me up." Actually it was ridiculously simple and a reasonable question. It appeared evident the French had no great love for the Nips.
The General's answer through Tokhadze was damned emphatic. It is not possible! The Japoneis would know of it and the already strained relationship between us would be even more jeopardized, Tokhadze interpreted. Not being a diplomat, this answer sounded very weak indeed.
"You see," Tokhadze explained, "although we all favor General DeGaulle now, when the troops of Nippon moved into Indo-China in the summer of 1940, our Colonial Military forces were under the control of the Vichy Government. The enemy moved in with impressive strength. Greatly outnumbered and with our outmoded equipment we were in no position to oppose them physically or diplomatically. Since then the political situation has changed, that is true, but we cannot dispute the Japoneis openly. They could quickly crush us. It is the policy of Vichy that we must cooperate. We are permitted by them to maintain a small army, yes. But they realize it is of little consequence, and in reality, it is a means for them to bribe us to control the natives while they systematically confiscate great quantities of rice and other food in the productive Tonkin Delta region."
"No my friend. We cannot afford to risk the strength of the enemy against us yet. We must, as you Americans say, play ball with them. But that does not mean," he added with a wink, "that we comply fully with their every wish."
The General spoke again at some length. "You will be kept here for a few days;" interpreted Major Tokhadze, "then you will be taken to our mountain base at Bavi. Here you will be confined in comfort, as are a number of your countrymen, until the war is over or until we can perhaps smuggle you back to China."
This was the final blow! Months of internment to look forward to! I thought of my wife and its effect upon her. Desperately I told myself I must get back to China. The confidence of these officers must be won somehow.
"You will be perfectly safe, Major, however we are forced to an agreement with the Japoneis Military that all Allied prisoners we capture are French prisoners; those captured by the Niponese are their prisoners. That is why our soldiers went to such effort to find you. We, too, do not want you to fall into the hands of the enemy."
"In addition, we are obliged to permit their interpreters to question you, but only in the presence of French Officers. You may answer only what you wish; you are our prisoner"
This really stung! Before I could think, the words poured forth, "That's mighty gracious of you mon Commandant!"
"Tonight," ignored Tokhadze, "you must be placed in the guardhouse, but only to keep up appearances. If the Japoneis come to question you, you must appear to be treated as a prisoner."
Now insult was being heaped upon injury. A lost feeling rose within me. Home now seemed farther off than ever before.
An orderly conducted me to a rat infested dungeon if there ever was one. Food was brought that I was forced to devour quickly in order to salvage it from the rats. Then I sat down for some serious planning. Occasionally guards came in to bring cigarettes. They were very friendly; some had been to the United States many years before.
Sleep that night was very fitful. Between the expectations of Jap interrogation, the pain from my ankle, and the friendly rats, I lay awake most of the night. Finally I asked the guard for a mosquito netting to keep the rodents from running rampant over me. Very often we used this method at West China air bases to protect ourselves from rodents.
About 0400 hours the darkness in my cell was suddenly lit up by a lantern carried by a guard followed by the General and Major Tokadze. Instinctively I knew there was something up.
"The Underground is coming this morning to take you into Hanoi. The General believes they will help you."
My pulse leaped. Hanoi! --The Jap stronghold of the entire Delta Region. This was news. Surely they wouldn't risk bringing me here if there was not some plan that would be helpful to me.
To the General, I offered my most sincere thanks. During the remaining days spent in Indo-China, I never did understand the reason the General had taken the trouble to contact the Underground. Perhaps Major Tokhadze had a hand in it. Nevertheless, I shall never forget the Major; he was one of the finest examples of an officer I have ever seen.
At 0800 hours a car drove up to the entrance of the guard house. I was hustled into the rear seat and driven away immediately. The driver, an alert looking officer, gave me a heavy military coat with a black beret motioning to put them on. Many times during my stay in Hanoi I was accompanied by this man. Each time he was dressed differently.
We drove rapidly southeast towards the city. As we entered the outskirts of Hanoi, my companion suddenly pointed saying, "Japoneis!" There, dressed in a greenish-yellow uniform, rifle on his back, peddled the first Jap I'd ever seen from the ground. Curiously I observed many of them as we drove through the city streets. I was most impressed by their splendid physical condition and excellent military bearing. Many actually saluted us. I felt strangely excited returning their salutes in the same manner the driver did. Each time we would wink in the rear view mirror and smile broadly. The streets of Hanoi were broad and beautiful. The buildings were very western in design and construction.
Finally we drove through a well guarded entrance. Inside were modern homes constructed of cement and brick with beautiful shade trees around. Soldiers were drilling in the many grass areas. This, I soon learned, was a military post named the Citadel, located in the North-Central portion of Hanoi.
I was immediately taken to the headquarters of the French Underground for the Delta Region in the State of Tonkin. Another such headquarters, I later learned, was in Saigon, some 400 miles south along the coast.
I was ushered into a larger room in which there were three men dressed in civilian clothes, All three introduced themselves, One was Guy Bertand, Capitaine D'Artillerie Coloniale. It was the Capitaine that spoke fluent English, the others, although they understood, could only speak brokenly. The leader, a Colonel, was introduced . He appeared a very shrewd but kindly man of perhaps 45 years of age. I liked him immediately and believe the feeling was mutual.
Many questions were asked. They appeared greatly concerned that I did not instantly recognize the French soldiers that found me the preceding day. Better left unexplained, I thought. To inform them of my limited knowledge of their government would do me no good.
The thought pounded in my mind, "Can you arrange for my return to China?"
The Colonel shrugged his shoulders, "You must be patient. The chief of our organization will be here tonight; it is he who must decide." In answer to my troubled countenance he laughed and said, "But do not worry, I will see what can be done."
Capitaine Bertrand took me downstairs to comfortable quarters with instructions to remain in this room unless accompanied by one of his men. He was very friendly and explained many things which helped me understand the puzzling situation these French are in.
"When the Japanese armies first came to Indo-China they were splendidly equipped. They were very arrogant. What they wanted they took. The native Annamites have developed a fierce hatred for them, for there has been so much food and rice confiscated that they now feel the shortage in their bellies."
"So the Japanese commanders have utilized our meager forces to obtain their needs and to control the Annamites. But my friend, do not think we French would not fight if these thieves tried to disband our military forces. We would be beaten, yes, for we cannot pit our arms and numbers against theirs. We have no cannon or mortars, but we have principles."
"More recently the demands of their commanders have not been put in such forceful terms. They are very much aware of the advances you Americans are making in the South Pacific, and I believe they realize an invasion of Indo-China, perhaps in this Tonkin Area, may soon be a reality."
He went on to explain that, face to face, the French-Japanese relations were most cordial. But whenever opportunity presented itself, neither hesitated to stab the other in the back.
"They are aware we have aided many Allied airmen return to safety and they resent it strongly. Actually we know relations are close to the breaking point, and who knows when we shall become openly hostile."
Bertrand remained to join me in an excellent lunch that included several bottles of Hanoi-brewed beer.
A young non-commissioned officer named Jean Dastugue spent the afternoon with me. Although we could not speak each others language, we got along famously. He showed me an album of pictures of the various camps at which he had been stationed in Indo-China. Later he gave me a photograph of himself which I've managed to keep to this day.
In the early evening the chief of the organization arrived. The Colonel presented me to him. He was a small middle aged man, likewise dressed in civilian clothes. Apparently all four had been discussing me. My situation, I knew, was critical. I decided to gamble and to use the highest card I had.
"Was the bombing of the Japanese Headquarters on the museum very effective?" I asked steadily.
If those bombs had burst within this room they could not have had greater effect.
"You know about the bombing?", they chorused incredulously.
"I was one of the pilots".
They talked rapidly among themselves. I knew from their expressions that I'd hit the jack pot.
"Never before have you Americans used our intelligence information to such effect. From our own intelligence sources it is known that 46 Japanese Officers and over 60 soldiers were either killed or wounded." Bertrand interpreted excitedly.
From that moment, I was in. I believe they would have made me Mayor of Hanoi if I'd asked. The time was ripe to follow up the advantage. I asked in my most sincere manner, "If this is an example of the damage our airplanes can do using your knowledge of specific targets available, why don't you use me as a means to convey this information to my Air Force?"
This seemed mighty logical to me, but I must confess it was prompted by a selfish motive. If I could gain as much information as possible of the various Jap installations, from an airman's viewpoint their desire to conduct me back to China would be increased just that much more.
Again I scored, for the chief did not hesitate to give his consent. "How would you like to see these enemy installations with your own eyes," he countered.
This time he scored! About now I figured I'd bitten off more than I could chew. But it was a challenge and an interesting one at that.
"I would like that very much."
They all seemed exceptionally pleased about the whole idea, more so than I was, frankly.
Maps of the entire Delta Region were spread out. Some targets within the city itself were impossible to hit from the air. The Nips were plenty clever. Before any building is utilized they make certain it is protected by surrounding native homes, or even hospitals and schools, thereby insuring the safety of their own worthless hides from air attack.
But there were many targets that were excellent--air dromes, railroad marshaling yards, two or three ship building projects on the banks of the Red River, the main Jap base of Zuan Mai, where they informed me, over 16,000 troops were now based. In addition there was an enemy garrison at Sept Pagode, a town about 60 kilometers northeast, another at Ninh Bin. Convoy repair shops were located at Phu Ly and Bac Nan, which troops moving down from southern China enroute to Zuan Mai, utilized as transient camping areas. All these, along with a number of railroad and highway bridges carrying heavy military traffic, they planned for me to see. Many of these targets were well camouflaged and had not been found or attacked. Many photographs were available.
"How will I visit these places?" I inquired, attempting to be casual.
"Ah that is easily done. Sometimes you will dress in civilian clothes, and other times you will play the part of a Foreign Legion Officer. We French are permitted to drive our vehicles at will."
"But I cannot speak French," I reminded him.
" That is unnecessary," retorted Bertrand, "twenty-five percent of the Legionnaires cannot speak but a few words. You will be correct to simply be quiet in the presence of any Japoneis."
"Brother," I thought, "I won't say a word, that's for sure."
It was planned that Bertrand would drive me around the city to acquaint me with the various sections. "Then you can visit as many of the other installations as time will permit while we prepare to have you moved across the China border. But remember, it is not a simple thing to smuggle you out. Preparations must be made carefully. It may take ten days before everything is ready."
But this was what I wanted. I tried to explain my appreciation for all this effort and for their genuine cooperation.
"This is our way of fighting the same war you are fighting. We do not have your weapons, but we do have your spirit and same purpose of mind", smiled the Chief.
We shook hands, and I returned to my room with thoughts of what lay ahead the next few weeks. I prayed to God with a fervor greater than ever before.
The following morning, March 7th, I dressed in a dark blue civilian suit, the first worn for over three years, and I wore that ridiculous beret again. I was sure I did not wear it with the same jaunty air these Frenchmen did.
All morning was spent driving around the city. I'd never been so excited in my life. Once we came upon the Nips in the street wielding long wooden sticks against each other in the manner of sword play. I was fascinated by the blood curdling yells they emitted as they danced around parrying each other's blows.
"These cries they make terrify the natives," Bertrand explained. "It is for this reason they are encouraged to put on these exhibitions publicly."
The highlight of this drive came when we passed the museum that Blankenship and I had bombed. Little did I ever expect the day we ran this mission that I would have the opportunity to observe the results in this manner. Incidentally, there had not been an alarm called on this raid at all. Surprise had been achieved.
Once again the Nips showed their colors. They were now using this building as a prison. No longer would another bombing be objectionable.
I did feel Bertrand was carrying this tour a bit too far when we stopped at a very prominent French restaurant for lunch. We sat at a table only feet away from one occupied by four Japanese officers.
Occasionally they glanced in our direction while conversing in low tones. Each time the blood froze in my veins. Could it be they were discussing me? Surely my tenseness was evident to them.
All four wore thick-rimmed glasses. With smooth shaven heads and Samurai Swords hanging at their waists, they were a typical Hollywood likeness of Japanese we Americans loathed. My imagination kept playing games with me. One wrinkled his forehead in such a way, that I almost believed he was Tojo himself.
Shortly after the four arose and left the table, bowing slightly as they passed us. My relief was unparalleled. "I do not fancy they realized they were looking at an American flying officer," muttered Bertrand sarcastically. I managed to grin.
In the afternoon we crossed the former Doumer Bridge over the Red River along the equally famous Route Coloneale #1. We drove past Gia Lam Airfield across the River on the east side of town. It was really a State-side airdrome with concrete runways and parking ramps. There were a number of aircraft repair shops and two or three old Nates inside the hangers. A number of dummies and partially destroyed aircraft were scattered around. The field was dotted with 20 and 40mm ack ack and machine gun emplacements. I was impressed with the ground defenses. The risk involved in hitting this place from the air with fighters, I decided, could be costly.
Returning to Hanoi we passed the railroad yards that B-25's had so effectively bombed about two weeks before. "The Japanese are using native labor, but the Annamites are taking many times longer to make repairs than necessary" Bertrand smiled. But there was a portion repaired and this the Nips were using heavily, even in daylight.
That night I spent making notes on maps the French had given me for that purpose. The Capitaine visited again. We had a fine talk. I learned that it was over four years since he had received any letters or news of his wife living in France. He had two young daughters; their welfare caused him deep concern. I realized more than ever how extremely fortunate we Americans are.
The next day, the 8th of March was a long one. We drove thirty kilometers to the Japanese base of Zuan Mail. This time I was dressed as an officer of the French Foreign Legion. The ride was slow, for the road was cluttered up with Nip vehicles, carts, bicycles, and any mode of transportation they could utilize.
I was very impressed by the activity here. Of course we could not enter the camp but drove along a road adjacent to the south border.
This was a real camp! Construction was at a furious pace. Revetments for supplies and munitions were being built. There were hundreds of buildings, warehouses and barracks, all made of light bamboo with thatched roofs.
Machine gun and ack-ack emplacements were well dispersed as far as the eye could see. These bastards didn't have much air power of their own but they certainly had ground protection from ours.
In order that suspicion would not be aroused, we drove many miles west beyond the camp, almost to the Black River at Hoa Binh, before returning.
We skirted south of Hanoi till the Red River was reached, then drove south along the river to view the two shipbuilding yards. Here only wooden boats were built, none larger then 100 feet. Some were motor powered, but most were barges or just large sampans. Shipping had a high priority in target value to the 14th Air Force, so I noted all this with interest. What a difference between the huge ship building projects of our own West Coast.
Once again that evening I made notes and drew sketches of all the installations observed during the day. By this time my common title was, "Edween". The name, Witzenburger, always a thorn in my side, proved much too difficult for them to pronounce.
Dastugue visited that evening bringing a phonograph and some French records. He got a bang out of the singing but of course I could not understand the words. Besides, it was rather corny.
March 9, 1945 dawned clear. We drove south to the transient convoy camps at Ninh Bin and Bac Ninh, practically brushing elbows with the Jap soldiers congregated in the congested areas.
By this time I had become accustomed to their presence. And, surprisingly, rather than any feeling of nervousness, only a strong hatred well up inside of me. Just to look into their eyes was to realize these fiends had no common decency, but that atrocities and war were strictly a business for them. It was easy to hate.
That evening was the most memorable I've ever had. Dastuge and I were drinking brandy. Then all Hell broke loose! Machine gun fire was everywhere mingled with the terrifying explosion of mortar shells.
Bertrand burst in crying excitedly, "The Japoneis are attacking the Citadel! Come, Edween, we must destroy this building before they come!"
If I'd ever been dazed before, this was it. My plans were suddenly shattered. Here was a situation I had never been trained for. I felt so useless and so horribly lost watching these men run about in anything but a composed manner. In addition instructions were given in French which was irritating . With resignation I destroyed all the maps and information I had collected these past days. How terribly alone I felt amidst this pandemonium.
Dynamite was carried in and while it was being wired, Bertrand and I armed ourselves from a small arsenal in the basement. My own 45 had been returned. We each took four hand grenades in a leather knapsack. The British had dropped a number of American carbines and Smith & Wesson revolvers. We each took one and a couple of boxes of shells. I'd seen many pictures of a hand grenade but these were the first I had ever touched. Meanwhile the machine gun fire grew more intense.
A number of young men came from their nearby homes in the Citadel. Bertrand assumed command and called us all together. He spoke rapidly in French which for me certainly did not help. Guns chattered and bombs dropped all over the place, the Nips probably within yards, and Bertrand talks in French!
"We will split up in two parties," he then explained for my benefit, "Dastugue will take charge of one and you will come with me in the other. Dastugue will destroy the building and we will travel separately to Tong. Can you walk Edween?"
I'd forgotten entirely about my ankle which was still swollen and quite painful. "Hell yes! Let's get out of here!"
A party of seven composed of the Capitaine, a Lieutenant, a college professor, three of his students from the University of Hanoi, and I moved quickly through the Citadel. Frequently the whine of shells made us fall prone upon the ground. The pace was fast. Fighting pain in my ankle caused me to perspire freely.
We reached a dark isolated section of the wall. Cautiously we boosted each other over. Our primary concern lay in putting as much distance between this hot spot and ourselves as quickly as possible.
We climbed fences and stole through back alleys. There wasn't a soul to be found on the streets this night except Japs. Once we hid in some shrubs while a Jap truck loaded with troops drove past.
For perhaps an hour we worked our way toward the northern outskirts of the city. Then occurred an experience that had an unforgettable emotional effect upon me. Out of the darkness appeared a tall middle-aged woman. With a black shawl about her shoulders, she was the picture of mystery and distress. I was later told her son had been visiting the Citadel that evening, and after the attack joined the party that Dastugue was leading.
Bertrand appeared to know this wife of an officer quite well. After a short conversation, much to my surprise, he kissed her on either cheek. Then to my amazement, each of the members of our party did likewise. I recall thinking amusedly, "Better get in on this Old Man." So I agreeably, tacked on the end of the line. After the last one had finished, I placed both my hands on her ears as the others had done and kissed the woman. I shall always remember the smooth touch of her skin against my lips. Somehow during this terrible night of fright, uncertainty, and pain, as I kissed her sweet face, I felt courage flow back in me. It reminded me the noble women, as this one, were one of the things for which we were fighting.
I guess I must have used the wrong technique, for after the second kiss she spoke to me in French.
"This is an American aviator who is escaping with us," Bertrand answered her in English.
"Oh God Bless You." she answered, "I have been to America once with my son." With that she kissed me. Temporarily, I felt unbeatable.
The woman had given our leader information where a boat could be found on a nearby lake within the northern limits of the city. The lighted streets were dangerous whereas traveling northward across the darkened lake would decrease our chances of being discovered.
Enroute to the lake another Nip truck approached. This time there was no opportunity to hide. We fell flat upon the ground in the shadows of some scattered trees and just prayed. The vehicle roared past. For some reason we were not discovered.
At the lake we found a large rowboat. Silently we climbed aboard and rowed to the north in complete darkness.
Bertrand made plans. After landing we would walk northeast until the bank of the Red River was reached, then follow the River north some eight miles. Our position at this point would be 8 miles due east of the French Foreign Legion Fort of Tong. Our course would then turn due west to reach the fort.
Cautiously we approached a five foot embankment on the far shore. In the process of boosting each other up, one of the boys dropped his weapon back into the boat. It landed with a resounding noise. I believe every dog within a mile voiced his protest.
Hurriedly we scurried ashore. But the damage was done. Out of the darkness came rifle fire. For the first time of the entire trip I completely forgot my ankle and ran like blazes behind the others. In fact I recall passing one or two. Foolishly one of the young boys at the rear fired back. The results had a spurring effect. Fortunately no one had been hit. For what seemed hours we ran, stumbled, fell, and ran again. Each second I prayed for strength to keep going.
The guard apparently was alone for nobody followed that we could detect. We moved steadily toward the river. I fell repeatedly now. Each step was agonizing to the point that my vision became white and hazy. I could no longer distinguish objects in the dark.
Then the river appeared. We waded through a portion of the edge. The cold water felt wonderful. My head cleared, and miraculously the pain in my ankle disappeared. I could walk again and carry my carbine.
"The Japs treacherously pulled another Pearl Harbor," I thought. I recalled being told of a dinner that was to be given for two French Generals by the Japanese Staff on this night. "Wonder what's been done to them," I thought. Behind, the fire and destruction in the area of the Citadel had caused a huge red glow in the sky.
For two or three hours we trudged along the river shore, then about 4 a.m. cut due west. By this time I continually fell to the rear of the party. It came to the point that I became irritated whenever someone would pass me. I prayed for dawn so we could hide and rest awhile.
My own GI shoes had been taken away the first day at Tong. Now I wore a pair of French hob-nailed boots that were a poor fit. To the discomfort caused by my ankle, blisters added their part.
By 7 a.m. we reached a tiny village of bamboo huts. Here we wearily threw ourselves to the ground and slept.
In a short time we were joined by two Foreign Legion soldiers and a native Annamite soldier. Our party grew to a total of eleven.
They told us the Japanese had captured the Citadel during the night, and had ruthlessly lined up and killed all the defending native troops. The French prisoners were to be sent to Thailand for internment.
The news had a staggering significance to the professor and his students that had left their wives and families behind. Now they could only guess of their treatment.
Both the Legionnaires were walking without shoes. The Japs had caught them in the city and taken them to a building used as a prison. Their shoes were taken away as a measure to prevent them from escaping. After being bayoneted in the buttocks, these tough Legionnaires had escaped with the native in the late evening. The Annamite soldier said Nip parties were scouring the area for French that they knew had escaped from the Citadel.
Our leader decided to continue immediately. It was imperative now that we reach the base of Tong without delay. The native was a very valuable addition to the party. He was able to talk with the villagers and obtain valuable information of the Japanese positions around us. He knew the trails that skirted around them. Steadily we progressed toward the west. Many things entered my mind while walking. Most of them were about home--of the way Eleanor and I had our breakfast on Sunday mornings, of our two black Scotties, of how we hated to be each other's partner at bridge. These things were so very far away, but the thoughts acted as wonderful incentives.
We rested a few minutes of each hour. I looked forward to those rests five minutes after we finished them. Lord, it was discouraging to start out in front and always end up so far behind that my rest period was half as long as was the others.
One unhappy factor about crossing rice paddies was the additional distance one must cover caused by the rectangular sections in which they were laid out. Walking straight, of course, was impossible across the boggy areas.
At noon we reached a fair sized village. It was here we learned the discouraging news that the Fort of Tong de Sontay and Mt. Bavi had been attacked simultaneously with the Citadel. Both had already fallen! Only a few hundred Legionnaires had escaped. Their only alternative was to head west to the mountains and consolidate their forces. This, too, was now our only alternative. The thought that there were many Jap troops between us and the first range of mountains hung heavily upon our spirits. I wondered what had happened to Major Tokhadze.
This was quite a blow to our plans. Again the Capitaine had his typically heated French discussion, and again I felt left out and alone. Perhaps it was because all my training and experience had been directed toward aerial combat. On the ground I felt completely incompetent.
The conclusion of the little session was that we would continue to travel west, but fast. The longer we took the better positioned the Nips would be to intercept us.
As we walked that afternoon it frequently became necessary to hide as Japanese reconnaissance planes flew overhead. It came to the point that I could no longer distinguish which caused more pain, my ankle or the blisters.
By evening we arrived at a large native village. The Headman met us in a very friendly manner, supplied us with water to wash then fed us some rice and hot tea. We all ate ravenously, rolling the extra rice into balls and covering them with large palm leaves to eat on the way.
Refreshed we took out after dark on our westward trek. After some hours I just lost track of time, and concentrated desperately on not dragging too far behind. Walking the narrow paths between the rice paddies was quite difficult in the dark. More than once we slipped into the mud and water. Each time we stopped, even monetarily, I threw myself wearily upon the ground. My throat was parched; we were all thoroughly fatigued. Water in this area caused intestinal diseases, while the water in the mountains teemed with cholera.
I had been carrying a small item from my old escape vest, a plastic flask that contained a few medicines. Included within were a few sticks of chewing gum. I debated for many minutes whether I should squander a piece of the gum now or save it for more despairing times. I soon succumbed and remember so vividly the heartening effect it had. Once again it was a bond with home.
We skirted several bands of Japs camped for the night. Once again the natives proved their hatred for the enemy and their loyalty toward the French, for frequently they would meet us in the darkness to warn us of Nips in their village. As dawn approached, Bertrand called a halt for the weary little party by a tiny group of dwellings. Here we slept until 0900 hours while the natives stood watch. The rest was splendid tonic. In the morning we bathed our blistered feet in cool water.
The elderly professor's feet were particularly in bad shape. But he said never a word, and even chided his pupils over their softened condition. I have a great deal of respect for this man; he was indeed an inspiration for us all.
Between Tong, located to the north of our present position, and the Jap stronghold of Zuan Mai, to the southwest, there ran a military highway identified as Route Coloneale #32. This road was our last barrier to at least temporary security. If we could cross this road and continue some fifteen miles westward through a mountain pass, the Black River would be reached. Following this river south for about ten miles was the town of Hoa Binh. Here Bertrand and friends that could take us by sampan toward the northwest to the French bases of Muc Chau, Son La and Dien Bien Phu. Son La had an airfield which interested me to no end.
But the road between Zuan Mai and Tong was heavily patrolled by the Nips. Already, the natives informed us, many French troops had been captured or killed in skirmishes while attempting to cross to the safety of the jungles on the western side.
However, there was absolutely no choice in the matter. To remain east of the road was to remain surrounded by the enemy. Accordingly, Capitaine Bertrand planned to reach this road by late afternoon, then at dusk, attempt the crossing in small groups.
But the best laid plans often do go astray. Our progress was speeded up so considerably, probably due to the rest and the urgent fear of capture, that we reached the road by mid afternoon. Here Bertrand made his first mistake. After observing the road with its heavy traffic from a knoll, the Capitaine grew impatient. Rather than wait he decided we would cross immediately thereby getting a start before nightfall.
"We will cross in two groups of four each with three remaining in hiding for cover in case of detection."
For some reason I, along with two of the students, were selected to cover the crossing. My opinions did not agree with his on any of the three choices, but to put it in his eloquent expression, "Edween, I am the boss; you will stay back until all have crossed!"
So the three of us edged cautiously forward to a thicket about twenty yards from the road. We were well concealed and were still afforded unrestricted vision of the highway.
Silently we searched the road. Everything was clear to the north, but to the left there was a slight bend not many yards away. There were no sounds of voices or approaching vehicles, so one of the boys quickly crawled back to wave on the first four.
Very tensely I watched them as they drew to within feet of the road, Just as they reached the far side and prepared to disappear into the thicket, a rifle shot shattered the stillness. I was so startled that I couldn't even detect from which direction it came. The shot was quickly followed by two Nips appearing from around the bend. Foolishly they ran entirely exposed toward the place the four had disappeared. It was a matter of only seconds before they were exactly opposite us.
Simultaneously we all fired. I fired two shots. one at each, but don't believe the second was necessary.
All this shooting alerted a truck, which must have been parked perhaps two hundred yards around the bend. The engine starting was very pronounced. Quickly I called the second group to cross. This time there was no caution. They broke all existing track records crossing the road.
Unconsciously I found myself fumbling with the pouch that contained the hand grenades. The truck rounded the bend at a fast clip loaded with troops. Before the driver could react, he was upon the dead bodies. Just about that time I pulled the pin and let go. All Hell broke loose!-- It had landed squarely on the engine hood, parts flying in all directions. I don't even remember reaching for the second one, but still had the pin in my and as it landed in the very midst of the rear Jap troops. The whole thing happened in seconds. I hadn't the slightest idea grenades had such devastating destructive power. Debris and parts of bodies were scattered in every direction.
I must have been dazed, for the boys told me later, that they had to practically drag me across the road. But once my senses returned things really began to happen. For the second time I completely forgot my injured ankle as we crashed through the undergrowth with a propelled energy--propelled by combined emotions--fright, incredulence at the terrific damage, the horror of mutilated bodies, and even by a slight bit of pride for my new found ability as a foot soldier. It wasn't till some time later that I realized how exceedingly fortunate we were by the exact timing of the incident, and the stupidity of the Japs.
We joined the others and eventually reached the small village that was predetermined as the meeting place for all three groups. Breathlessly we told our story. Somehow this baptism of ground fighting made me feel like a veteran. No longer did I feel lost on the ground. At that moment I was thoroughly convinced I could whip the whole damned Jap army--if they just came in bunches.
For the next four hours we continued to put distance behind us. Progress was torturously slow due to the heavy jungle growth. After dark we stopped and spent the night at another friendly Annamite village. I noticed Bertrand scrupulously paid the village chief two silver coins for the food and rest.
We got an early start the next morning. Bertrand had borrowed a small pack horse from the natives which he insisted I ride. Objecting vigorously, I was overruled by the oft quoted statement that he, Bertrand, was the boss.
I guiltily mounted. As the morning passed, additional sores on other places were acquired from riding this jolting little beast that brought me to the point where I actually preferred to walk.
Nevertheless by late afternoon the mountain was completely rounded and a village on the east bank of the Black River was reached.
Our leader decided to wait until darkness to cross. The boat was limited to only three, so those that crossed first were required to wait for the others. We then continued south along the road to Hoa Binh.
Bertrand and the native soldier, however, left immediately at a faster pace for Hoa Binh to contact his friends and make arrangements for water transportation. We were uncertain whether the Japs had yet occupied Hoa Binh so the two could act as scouts as well.
After a two hour start, the remainder of us followed. Just to walk on a good road again was exhilarating after the narrow winding rice paddy paths and tangled jungle trails. By one-fifteen o'clock we arrived at the edge of town to receive the heartening news that Hoa Binh was not occupied. Furthermore, Bertrand's friends had a large sampan on the south edge of town. One of the grandest surprises I ever had awaited us at the sampan. We had a feast of cold chicken, bread, and beer.
It was two o'clock on the morning of March 13th that we left Hoa Binh. A mile south the Black River makes a gradual 90 degree turn flowing to the northwest. We continued this general direction upstream into the mountainous portion of Indo-China. Colonial Route #119 from Hoa Binh follows the river to the town of Suiyut then leaves the Black River and angles northwesterly toward the mountain base of Son La.
The luxury of sitting in a boat, no longer traveling by my own power, seemed too good to be true. Wearily we stretched out while the two natives rowed many hours.
We arrived at the first town of Sho Bo, a tiny settlement that contained a small detachment of French Legionnaires. Here we were startled into immediate action with the news the Japs had moved into Hoa Binh and had taken over the town early that morning at three a.m. That was just one hour after we had departed. Furthermore, there were enemy columns advancing toward us along the road.
Not a second was wasted as we hustled back into the boat and rowed vigorously westward toward Suiyat. Here a larger French force was garrisoned, and vehicular transportation would be available to Son La.
As we rowed I thought of those Legionnaires left behind. Theirs was the suicide job of blowing up bridges, establishing road blocks and barriers to slow up the enemy advance. A mere handful of the toughest soldiers on earth were to hold back Jap mechanized forces far outnumbering them and with overwhelming firepower.
Our goal now was Suiyut only twelve miles west. After some time had elapsed, we were alerted by the sound of several explosions in the direction of the road on the north side of the river. Again and again they were repeated. Very concerned that we might be cut off and trapped, Bertram ordered the sampan rowed to the south shore where we debarked and proceeded by foot.
To say I was discouraged is mild. Each moment that had been passing, built up my hope of outrunning these unrelentless fiends. Now everything had again tumbled. If they did reach Suiyut first, we were entirely cut off from Son La. There were no other military bases within 300 kilometers and these could be reached only by travel through heartbreaking rough country. Actually Dien Bien Phu was the closest.
My ankle had showed no signs of improving; if anything, the swelling had increased. We all were very hungry and completely worn out as we progressed. It is really surprising how one's will to live declines with physical fatigue.
Our morale did not increase any when in spots we were forced to cut our way through the matted undergrowth. For seven long hours we hacked toward Suiyut; then through a clearing the town appeared ahead, nestled in the hills that rose from the river.
Breathlessly we watched for signs of activity. Inwardly I prayed with all my heart.
There was a sudden noise behind! I remember in that instant becoming blindingly mad. For some reason the thought flashed through my mind--"The Nip bastards have us surrounded!"
A figure crashed into view. It was a patrol of Legionnaires!
How joyously we received the news the enemy had not arrived. All this had not been in vain. As we hustled toward the village my thoughts alternated between my thanks to God and the vision of home and my wife. Now we had another chance.
Within minutes a truck was gassed, loaded, and we were on our way to Son La, nearly two hundred kilometers away. We sang songs? Laughed, and indulged in the horseplay of free and happy men. Yes, life was a song.
The truck wound through the mountains until three o'clock that morning before reaching the garrison at Muc Chau. Here we learned the strategy of the Japanese. They were apparently to drive up this road, capture Son La, and by controlling this important artery, would keep the French from consolidating the remnants of their forces at this mountain bastion. The Yellow Ones were not fooling. They were bent on nothing short of complete extinction of all French Military Forces in Indo-China. We were told the two French Generals, guests of the Japs the night of March 9th, had been interned and sent to Thailand along with many other French people.
That night we slept on an actual spring mattress. Three of us slept in a double bed, but our exhaustion was so great that we could have been piled three deep as well and still slept soundly.
We started early in the morning of March 14th on the last lap to Son La. By noon we reached the goal sought these five long days. Anxiously I looked for the airfield. Then, Oh God, it came into view. I don't know what I was expecting, perhaps some sleek looking fighters, or a transport or two, but not in my wildest imagination did I picture such monstrosities as these.
Three very ancient and battered biplanes stood parked wing to wing on a field that measured not an inch more than 1000 feet.
This then, completed my picture of the French Military stationed in all of Indo-China,---An air force composed of three airplanes that any of our primary trainers could outperform in combat, supporting a ground force of rugged Legionnaires, probably averaging over 40 years of age, armed with nothing more than rifles and a few buckets of hand grenades.
With this woeful force how could the world ridicule these people for not having effectively resisted the might of Imperial Japan?
I realized how important a figure I had become, when after meeting the commander, he insisted I must be flown to China immediately. They were, in effect, willing to expend one-third of their air power to return me to China! The French had great need for supplies and munitions. They desperately needed the support of our 14th Air Force fighters, to strafe enemy columns advancing up the road which threatened to cut the retreating French to ribbons. They not only needed this help, but now that they were openly fighting our common enemy, they expected cooperation from the Americans and British fighting in Asia. I was actually observing the beginning of the end of French rule in Colonial Indo-China.
There were poor direct means of communication with China. I knew better than any American in the entire world what the tactical situation was in this country. I knew the key roads and rivers. I knew the location of the enemy, their intentions, and most of all, their means and ability to carry these intentions to a successful conclusion. I had just traveled along these very trails, and to the French, I was their means of letting the outside world know the true seriousness of the conditions. I could narrate, not from an observer's viewpoint, but as an actual participant--and of importance they trusted me to obtain the military assistance they so urgently needed.
But that afternoon the weather was impossible. Low ceilings persisted over the mountains which caused actual ground fog in places.
The following day was the same, only with a steady discouraging rain that increased my anxiety greatly. All this day the young Lieutenant that was to fly me back to Mengtze, a 14th Air Force forward fighter base in southern Yunnan, and I conversed. He spoke very broken English, but with a wonderful repertoire of gestures that made him easily understood. Intensely excited about flying to China, he plied me with questions of our modern aircraft. Sometimes I know he thought I exaggerated performance figures. Perhaps I did; I was most proud of American equipment and of its record in China.
Lieutenant Coguard was a handsome young man with the degree of complacent assurance in his ability that only a Frenchman can have. He was the only son of a wealthy aristocratic family. With pride he showed me pictures of his parents. He had, too, a photograph of a beautiful girl that he knew would always wait for him to return to his beloved France.
At times I thought he would cry when we spoke of the beautiful powerful airplanes that we Americans took for granted. To him, these aircraft were his very life, a portion of which died each day that he could not fly one. My heart warmed to him.
March 16th again dawned miserable. It was a most uncomfortable feeling to know the Japs were advancing closer and closer with hardly a thing in the world to stop them.
All that morning I prayed for the weather to break. By late morning the rain had stopped and the ceilings lifted. By early afternoon patches of blue sky could be seen through layers of clouds.
The squadron commander was reluctant that we take off. There were no reports on weather north to Mengtze or Kunming, and if we were forced to return here, the probability that this field would be closed by weather was far from remote.
I knew damn well he was right, but my desperation was so great, I assured him that cloud conditions in the Kunming area were always at least broken at this time of the year.
In usual French style he discussed the matter heatedly with Lt. Coguard. At last he decided. We would take off and climb above the field to look the weather over. If it looked bad, we would return and land, if not, we would continue to Mengtze or Kunming in China. You can bet I was determined that if we ever got this klunker off the ground it would never land on this field again today.
Donning a heavy leather jacket, gloves, and a crash helmet, much the same as a football player wears, I climbed into the rear observer's seat to act as navigator.
The ship was designated a Potez-25, built in the year of Our Lord 1922 AD. It had seen service in Morocco many years before coming to Indo-China, which was over 14 years ago.
The cockpits were open. It had a tail skid in place of a wheel for taxiing, and the main landing gear wheels reminded me of the spoked wheels used on bicycles. The fabric was dried, cracked, and loose from extreme temperature changes.
When the engine was started it sounded alarmingly like the engine of an old Fordson tractor. The wings shook and the fabric rippled gently.
I have almost 3000 hours in the air as a pilot--in many types of equipment--and never have I thought of flying with anything but anticipation. But this flight I knew would be different. In my anxiety to return to safety, this jalopy almost looked good.
Lt. Coguard taxied out to the end of the runway while mechanics guided the wings. The contraption was even without brakes. A flight among these fellows was a big event. In this kite it was understandable so we received cheers, handshakes, and slaps on the back as we turned into the wind for takeoff.
"Goodbye Edween," screamed Bertrand. You can imagine the comforting effect all this had upon me.
It seemed that no sooner had the coals been poured to it than the ship was in the air. With all the wing area it was much like a butterfly. But how slowly across the terrain it moved.
After spiraling for many minutes we topped the layers at 12000 feet. Up here the world was so completely different. The sun upon the billowing clouds was like fairyland. Now I was in my own element again. I gave Coguard a reassuring grin, called the magnetic heading to Mengtze, and waved him toward China. Then we settled down for a long ride. Gradually the clouds became a solid overcast and the tops rose higher. We were forced to climb to 14500 feet to fly visually, for there certainly was no instrumentation to fly by instruments. At this altitude the little ship wallowed through the air.
As we continued, and as I computed the ground speed, the more fervently I prayed the words of the Lord's Prayer, "Deliver Us From Evil." The airspeed indicator read the equivalent of 90 mph. During this season of the year the prevailing winds aloft were from a generally northwesterly direction perhaps averaging about 40 mph. However, at 14500 feet the true air speed was probably closer to 115 mph corrected for changes in pressure and altitude. But with almost a due headwind our actual ground speed would be approximately 75 mph. The distance to Kunming was 280 miles, and to Mengtze 175 miles. The airplane is capable of remaining aloft four hours at normal cruising power.
All this meant, considering the extra fuel consumed while climbing at increased power, we would probably run out of fuel directly over Kunming airport-i.e. we navigated without error-i.e. we could find a hole to let down visually before we reached there.
The fact was we had no alternative but to land at Mengtze which shortened the distance to find a break in the overcast by some 105 miles.
For three solid hours Coguard and I sat there hoping, and, I believe, both of us, praying. Frequently the Lieutenant would turn around with a questioning glance. Each time I would force a big grin and give him the old thumbs up, inwardly feeling like a heel.
I believe God knew our predicament, for after exactly three hours, we saw a patch of ground momentarily below. I was certain the wings must be torn off as Coguard executed a wing-over to dive down through the hole. My surprise was unparalleled! With the airplane in about a 70 degree dive we came out underneath the clouds at 2000 feet with the nose pointing directly at two small lakes which I recognized immediately as being about eight miles from Mengtze and an airfield at which one of the fighter squadrons of the 51st Fighter Group was based.
If I'd had possession of the controls I would have done slow--rolls, yes in this old klunker--the remainder of the distance to the airfield. But the uncertain moment I had anticipated was here. Suppose the P-38 aircraft based below mistook us for a Nip and took off for an interception? Vigorously we waggled the wings as we approached the field. Then circling we let down gradually. How ironical it would have been to be hit by ground fire from the men of one of my own squadrons. But in another two minutes Coguard had it safely on the ground actually landing within the width of the runway rather than the length. We were among a group of American friends!
After a hurried trip north to Kunming for interrogation and dissemination of the intelligence we brought, and to establish the immediate need for air assistance at Son La, the boys put on a big party in honor of Coguard. And the rice wine flowed like beer. During the following days numerous fighter sorties were flown south of Son La to interdict and stop the Japs. This action was successful for a week to ten days before the Base was overrun.
Two days later I flew down to Mengtze to see this fine pilot off. He was well loaded with radio equipment, supplies, even a few PX articles.
Reluctantly I watched him take off in very questionable weather. The weather in the Son La area was good, but enroute there were many clouds with mighty hard rocks in them. The Lieutenant was firm in his decision to remain underneath the cloud level and to fly visually.
Lieutenant Coguard circled the field and then buzzed us at all of 100 mph. Then, as an omen, a small piece of fabric tore loose from his airplane and fluttered to the ground fairly close to me. This is a cherished piece of cracked cloth. That fine Officer never arrived at his destination.
My adventure of only eleven days was ended, but not so my thoughts and sincere gratitude toward the many Frenchmen to whom I most certainly owe my life. For me there is no more honest way to give tribute to those wonderful spirited people than to print word for word the letter so eloquently expressed that I received from the Squadron Commander of the late Lieutenant Coguard, a letter symbolic of their courage and our brief relationship.
Lueng-Nam-Tha April 20. 1945
I'm for a week on Luong-Nam-Tha's Field to get food, ammunitions, and, maybe, new fresh troops, but alas no plane in sight.
Luong-Nam-Tha's Field is a splendid one (Length and width between marks: 1530 yds. x 110 yds. Total dimensions: 1640 x 153 yds. Altitude above sea level: 1920 ft. with a ground very smooth and firm, allowing without risks the landing and takeoff of any up-to-date ship, P-51, P-38, B-25, Liberator and so on-- The fact was confirmed by an officer expert of the RAF who is actually in Luang-Nam-Tha.
I'll be very glad to meet you again. Could you, while in mission over Indo-China, land here after having recognized as the field the usual signal (IV in Roman Number and a smoke). I should want, if possible, to speak with you of Lieutenant Coguard, of his stay among you in Kunming. The sudden disappearance of this young officer, always ahead of his mates, and so sympathetic, was cruelly felt by everyone who knew him. We learnt that you have prescribed researches to find his wrecked plane. We heartily thank you and we thoroughly understood that gesture from your part. Thank you for the gifts you have sent by the Dakota at Dien-Bien-Phu for Lieutenant Coguard; these gifts were finally parted between the Squadron's crews. We'll never forget your kindness towards one of our mates. Be sure that friendly relations between the American Air Forces and our little knot of French Flyers never have been so strong. Our sincere wish is to fight the sooner possible, in co-operation with your glorious squadrons.
With hope to see you soon, I beg you to believe, dear Major, in my best sentiments, and in the deep sympathy we all feel for you.
Captain Vouzellaud, Chief of Lt. Coguard's Squadron.