Vietnam War - A Memoir - History


This document is taken from two sources: “The Orders and Medals of The Communist Governments of Indochina” by John Sylvester Jr., and the official document published by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s Institute of Orders (Vien Huan Chuong).

A History Of The Democratic/Socialist Republic Of Vietnam, And Marxist Unification.

The communist in Vietnam resembled many others among the Vietnamese nationalist, in that they took their creed from abroad – in this case from Leninism. Over the years, Ho Chi Minh built a disciplined and purposeful organization that broke its nationalist opponents, outlasted the French and Americans, and finally unified Indochina under its control.

Ho Chi Minh returned from the USSR in 1925 with Borodin’s mission to China in order to form a communist movement in Indochina; first called the Revolutionary Youth League and later in 1930 the Indochinese Communist Party. The party in 1930 led a peasant uprising in the central provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh, and created village “soviets” which were soon crushed by the French military. The party returned to clandestinity. It built a first guerilla base in upland Cao Bang and Bac Son, participating in an abortive-uprising in the fall of 1940. In May 1941 the party formed a broad united front called the League for the Independence of Vietnam (Vietnam Doc-Lap Dong-Minh Hoi, or in short, the Viet Minh). (The term Viet Cong, the contraction for Vietnamese communist, was later used by opponents more with the implication of the southern arm of the movement).

The party carefully refrained from challenging the Japanese, and prepared for the day of Japan’s defeat. After the French were interned in March 1945 and the Japanese conceded defeat on August 16, the party moved to seize the opportunity. Armed Propaganda Teams demonstrated across the country. On September 2, 1945, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was proclaimed and the flag of a five pointed yellow star on a red field was hoisted. Ho Chi Minh became the president of the Provisional People’s Government.

The Viet Minh moved to mollify the Chinese occupiers, keep out the French and destroy such native rivals as the VNQDD and Trotskyites. The Viet Minh did well in consolidating its position except in the south, where they faced the opposition of the sects and the British and French forces. In March 6, 1946, agreement, the French government, “recognized the Republic of Vietnam as a free state which has its own government, parliament, army, and finances and which is part of the Indochinese Federation and the French Union.” (But a separate French controlled Republic of Cochinchina was proclaimed June 1, 1948, with a flag of three horizontal blue stripes on yellow.) Although the French even for a short while helped the Viet Minh combat its nationalist rivals, French policy hardened, particularly as carried out on the scene by Admiral d’ Argenlieu. In concert, the Viet Minh took a harsher line, for instance, holding public ceremonies where citizens burned their French diplomas and destroyed their French medals.

The communist army claims its official origin in the first “Platoon of National Salvation” formed in the 1940 uprising. In December 1944 Ho Chi Minh created the “Vietnamese People’s Propaganda Unit for National Liberation,” which became in September 1945, with the new republic, the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). Under the capable General Vo Nguyen Giap the PAVN was built quickly using the concept of a people’s war, arms of varied origin, and a balance of political indoctrination and military professionalism. by 1946 it had about 100,000 men under arms, plus 35,000 paramilitary, and it continued to expand steadily thereafter. It fought with both great courage and heavy casualties, taking at times beatings from the French forces, but also securing major victories at Cao Bang in 1950, over Group Mobile 100 in 1953, and finally at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The divisions then consisted of the 304th, 308, 312th, 316th, and 320th, and the 351st Heavy Division.

The Indochinese Communist Party, following recognition by Peking and Moscow of the DRV in 1950, abandoned its clandestinity and changed its name to the Vietnam Workers Party (Dan Lao-Dong Vietnam). with the partition of Vietnam at the 17th parallel as a result of the Geneva agreements, the DRV gained full territorial control of the north. As its soldiers and cadre were “regrouped” to the north, the DRV apparently abandoned its position in the south pending unification of the country under an election to be held according to the terms of the agreement. The election was never held, Diem believing the communists would not tolerate any true one. As the Diem government unexpectedly reduced the chaos of the south and gained control, the communist had to rethink their strategy for the south. They initially, however, were preoccupied with building their own system in the north, partly through the brutal purges of the “land reform” program.

Starting in 1959 several thousand of the “regroupees” southern cadre were again sent to the south and there began again the effort to achieve “a general uprising”. There was then announced a purportedly separate party for the south, the People’s Revolutionary Party (Dang Nhan-Dan Cach-Mang), and a broader front organization the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam-NLF (Mat-Tran Dan-Toc Giai-Phong Mien-Nam). Control was retained in Hanoi and discipline over the southerners ensured by the security apparatus. The flag of the NLF was half red, half light blue with a gold star in the center, close to that of the DRV. In December 1963 the Ninth Conference of the Central Executive Committee made the decision for a full effort to take the south, and the Second Indochina War commenced in earnest.

In 1957 the PAVN had been systematically modernized on the Soviet model. Previously officers were designated by function, such as battalion commander, and had no rank and wore no insignia. Following a 1958 law, ranks were established and insignia and epaulets worn. The PAVN soldiers and units sent to the south, in order to maintain the pretence of a separate southern movement, used the functional rank designations of the People’s Liberation Armed Force of South Vietnam (PLAF) and their more modest insignia and decorations. Military operations in central Vietnam, however, were controlled directly from the north, and that area was divided into four tactical zones: the CMA Front, Military Region Tri Thien Hue, Military Region 5 below on the coast, and the B-3 Front inland. Military operations further south were controlled by the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN), located usually on the Cambodian border directly north of Saigon.

After the “Special war” of 1961-63 against the strategic hamlet program and the shaky ARVN, the communist forces then challenged in “armed struggle” the entering American units. Local guerilla and regional forces were intended to provide a “seething quality in the coordinated struggle”, while the main forces carried out “annihilating blows” that would cause “turning points in the war.” Put on the defensive by the hard pressing American units, the communists husbanded their forces for a major offensive during Tet 1968. They achieved the desired surprise in attack, and impetus to the antiwar movement in the US, but the southern communist units were so heavily blooded that thereafter the southern communists had little role in the war. The PLAF divisions, the 3rd, 5th and 9th, were largely thereafter staffed by PAVN soldiers infiltrated down the impressive road supply network from the north. The DRV did not acknowledge its direct involvement in the war in the south, and unit designations were camouflaged.

A COSVN directive of early 1971 called for continuing attacks to achieve “piecemeal” victories and to defeat pacification and Vietnamization. While achieving on the ground no real victories against the US forces, the communists kept the blood flowing and the bulk of their forces safe in Cambodia. They caused the Americans, just like the French, to grow tired of the political burden and to abandon the war. In January 1973 there were some 220,000 PAVN troops in the south comprising 15 infantry divisions and many independent infantry, sapper, artillery, armor, anti-aircraft regiments, the rear service and other units. Five divisions (304, 312, 320B, 324B and 325) were north of the Hai Van Pass in MR- I and two were south (711 and 2nd). In MR-2 there were three divisions (3rd, 1st, and 320); in MR-3 two (7th and 9th); and in MR-4 three (1st, 5th and 6th). Other divisions were in the north and in Laos.

In the 1973 Paris accord the US gained its prisoners back, but did not get the communist to withdraw their forces from the south. The DRV got the US out of Vietnam, but did not get the US to pull down Thieu and the Republic of Vietnam as it left. But the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam (PRG) did gain status from its participation in the talks. With President Nixon’s political collapse, US pledges of continued support for the Republic of Vietnam proved false. The spurious peace disappeared. By 1975 the PAVN was better armed by the Soviets and Chinese than the ARVN was by the US. It also had far more maneuverable battalions. In the major offensive of 1975 the ARVN fell apart and “unification” was achieved. It was a victory of the main force PAVN units, manifested in the Saigon victory parade in May, which featured bemedaled brass bands, tanks, SAM missiles, and only a few southern guerillas.

Victory was also celebrated by the elevation of the name of the state to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the party to the Vietnam Communist Party (Dang Cong-San Vietnam). The PRG disappeared with the formal unification of the country.

The aftermath was disappointing to the communist. Hanoi could manage war, but not peace, and certainly not an economy. The attractions of the rich south, moreover, corrupted veteran cadra; the southerners were resentful of northern control and a major border war developed with the vicious Khmer Rouge. This was complicated by a deepening quarrel with China, which was angered over Vietnam’s proud and ungrateful attitude and deepening ties with the USSR. The PAVN was expanded to some 33 infantry, 12 economic construction, and 6 engineer divisions. In January 1978 it blitzkrieged Democratic Kampuchea but had to leave there for the protection of its client state the 5th, 302nd, 307th, 309th, and part of the 950th divisions. The border war of February-March 1978 with China was a standoff, although the Vietnamese second line border units fought well. The SRV was the most formidable military power of Southeast Asia, but also isolated, impoverished, and heavily dependent on Soviet aid.

Later, tiring of the quagmire in Cambodia and of the economic and diplomatic costs of its intervention there, Hanoi reluctantly and gradually pulled its forces out, leaving the problem to the United Nations. With the distressing collapse of communism in East Europe and the Soviet Union, Hanoi cautiously mended its relations with Beijing. They remained divided over the rancor of history and competing territorial claims on the border and the South china Sea. But they shared interest as two of the only four remaining communist states. Moreover, the SRV, just as the PRC, was proceeding with economic liberalization, while resisting political liberalization. As fears by its ASEAN neighboured, the international community, and even the US.

The Medals: The Vietnamese communist movement began as a revolutionary political and partisan movement with the formal simplicity that implies. But it was also influenced by the French and Soviet experience, and that led to the adoption of a system of decoration and medals. Chairman Ho Chi Minh on January 26th, 1946, promulgated a decree listing ten categories of people who deserved awards, including those who had sacrificed for the country, saved lives, and those who contributed three children to the forces. According to information from prisoners and from examples found on the battlefield, medals were first awarded to communist combatants and sympathizers at the end of 1947. The decorations were often presented as collective or unit awards. A unit receiving the Southern medal would be presented the accompanying appellation “Valiant Unit in the Annihilation of Americans.” A company sized unit, for instance, would be eligible for this for destroying supposedly two US platoons in a single battle. Examples of other unit awards mentioned by Hanoi radio include the Ho Chi Minh Order 3rd class given to the Engineer Corps command on the 25th anniversary of its founding, March 25, 1980; and the Labor Medal First Class given to the Cadre of Nghia Binh province, March 30, 1978 for combatting illiteracy. Units as well as individuals, could be promoted after successes to a higher class award. Unit awards might be indicated by the presentation of a red banner with an appropriate inscription such as “Resolved to Win” (Quyet Thang). Subsequent awards were often shown by pinning medals to the unit flag; the flags of some combat units are photographed heavily incrusted with medals.

The award documents were often colorful with flags, ornamented borders, or pictures of the medal. Many were of postcard size and lithographed. Entries on the documents were often in handwriting and sometimes typewritten. Following standard Vietnamese practise, the seals were round and red. The document’s reverse might carry space for entries of additional awards of the medal in its various classes.